Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Mark and the Void: Satire of the Banking Crisis

If there's only one good thing to come out of the Great Recession, it's this hilarious novel. You may remember Paul Murray from Skippy Dies, a terrific, goofy novel about Irish prep school kids. Well, The Mark and the Void is terrific and goofy, too — but with a much more "serious" subject. I's a satire of two professions: Bankers and novelists. And you'll be surprised to find they have more in common than you might think.

"The financial corporation has become a machine for producing unreality," Murray tells us at one point, paraphrasing a philosopher several characters in the novel admire. And that's it: Just as writers produce fiction — which, frequently, life imitates — so too do bankers produce fiction which has real-life consequences. The entire world economy was brought to its knees by bankers inventing new investing mechanisms, and selling them to each other and naive consumers, and then betting they'd fail, and then inventing new ones, and going so deeply in debt that the only way to get out was to go further in debt so they'd be bailed out by government (which spent money much-needed for social services to save billionaires). All this ultimately created a vicious circle that is so absurd when you think about it (or read Murray's novel that makes it funny in a laugh-or-you'll-cry way), it really is the stuff of bad fiction.

Our protagonist here is a French banker named Claude, who works at a mid-sized investment bank in Dublin called Bank of Torabundo (Torabundo is a fictional island in the Pacific with lax tax laws. The bank is incorporated there. And Dublin has notoriously loose banking laws, so of course that's where the bank is headquartered.) One day, a novelist named Paul introduces himself, telling Claude he's working on a novel about an Everyman banker, and would like to shadow Paul for a few days to learn about what he does. Let's just say Paul has an ulterior motive.

And we go from there, alternating between Paul and Claude's often hilarious burgeoning friendship, and Claude's day-to-day often hilarious and absurd banking duties. Claude also has a love interest — a beautiful Greek waitress and painter. And he enlists the inept Paul's help to get the girl, often with truly comic consequences.

There is some real comedy gold in this novel — one example is a fake Forbes profile of the bank's new CEO, who broke into banking after professional golfing, who was rewarded with his new post because he crashed another bank, and whose wives keep "committing suicide." Another is a scene in which the Wolf of Wall Street-like dude named Howie takes a bunch of potential investors out for a crazy night of booze, coke, and strippers. It's exactly as you would imagine it.

I loved this book — it's a really, really smart satire populated with wonderful characters. And I learned more about the actual causes of the banking crisis from this novel than anywhere else. It finally makes sense how utterly absurd (and absurdly criminal!) it was/is. Very, very highly recommended.


  1. I started it but couldn't finish it. But reading your review makes me think i should give it another try. I loved Skippy Dies, but I just couldn't get into this one.

    1. It does take a minute. Did you make it to the fake Forbes article - about page 65? That's where it really started to click for me - and loved just about every word after that.