It is difficult, though not impossible, to write a great novel about a financial crisis. Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now tells of a Ponzi scheme that ensnares London. Charles Dickens set half of Little Dorrit in a debtors' prison. But these writers lived before the credit economy, when the merest hint of speculation could taint your moral fiber. It was easier to make debt into drama when a shilling overdue meant a jail cell, not a late fee. Twenty-first century banking trades in figmentary value--loans backed by loans, homes on high ground that sink underwater. The ship of moral fiber has long since sailed for the Cayman Islands.
That may be why Paul Murray wrote his new novel, The Mark and the Void, as a comedy. Murray scored a hit five years ago with Skippy Dies, a coming-of-age charmer set in an Irish boarding school. In the Dublin branch of the Bank of Torabundo, he updates that atmosphere of adolescent angst for the postcrash era. There's our narrator, Claude, an amusingly straight-shooting Frenchman; his officious boss Jurgen, who used to play in a reggae band in Munich (Gerhardt and the Mergers, natch); Howie, the pasty-faced boy-wonder trader; and Ish, an Australian free spirit chained by her mortgage to her soul-sucking job.
Into this global band of profiteers comes a writer. This one, coincidentally, is named Paul. His first novel got panned, and now he's looking for a subject that will capture the zeitgeist and enable him to make payments on the "classic Celtic Tiger piece of sh-t" apartment he bought at the height of the boom. He thinks it must be banking. How do the drones of finance spend their days? What motivates them when the world turns against them? And where, if anywhere, do they keep the money?
It wouldn't be sporting to reveal the sharp twists Murray's novel takes as Claude, with Paul as his shadow, attempts to answer these questions, for in them lies the comedy. But by launching his novel with a novelist's quest to document an epic implosion of credit (fiction backed by fiction, as it were), Murray reminds us that in the land of risk and reward, the causal rules of plot don't apply. As Claude and Paul veer into a surreal relationship, their story embraces those timeless themes that mark great novels--the power of family, the triumph of love, the humanizing role of art. It's hard to imagine these ideas being inspired by an investment bank. But the way we live now, perhaps they'd better be.