Paul Murray’s hilarious and surreal third novel is once again set in his home country of Ireland. In the wake of the financial crisis, Dublin is full of half-completed construction projects and Occupy-style protest camps, but the financial sector of the city is set apart, mirroring the separation between the people whose lives financial policy affects and those who set it.
Claude Martingale is one of the latter. A French expat who chose investment banking as a career after majoring in philosophy, Claude doesn’t have much of a life outside work. But when he realizes the mysterious man following him around is a writer purportedly interested in turning Claude’s life into the great Irish novel, Claude suddenly starts to take an interest in the direction of his hitherto aimless narrative.
And that’s only the beginning of the action in The Mark and the Void, which is part office comedy, part manifesto and part satire—a tricky combination for any writer. At times the book feels the weight, and none of the characters are quite as lovable as those of Murray’s 2010 breakout hit, the transcendent Skippy Dies. Still, they are vivid and surprising. And Murray’s rare talent for combining humor with big ideas is on full display. He draws parallels between financial capitalism and social media: Just as capital is only important for what can be derived from it, your life is only as valuable as the story you can use it to tell; in both cases, what is real is ignored. Yet nearly every page contains at least one laugh-out-loud line. When a coworker says that she and Claude “get on like a house on fire,” he thinks, “I picture the flames, the screaming. ‘Yes,’ I say.”
The Mark and the Void is the welcome return of one of literature’s most intelligent voices.