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Literature / The Mark and the Void

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The Mark and the Void is a 2015 novel by Irish novelist Paul Murray, who also wrote Skippy Dies. The story follows Claude, a French investment banker at the Bank of Torabundo now living in Dublin. His life becomes a little livelier when he meets a writer named Paul, who has been following him in order to make him the subject of his next book. Soon, Claude finds out there's far more to Paul and his plan than it first appears, and their lives become ever more intertwined. Meanwhile, Claude's life becomes far more exciting. He falls in love with a waitress, experiences turmoil at work, and the European debt crisis looms more and more over Ireland.

Many of the characters work with Claude at the Bank of Torabundo (referred to as BOT throughout the book). They include Ish, Claude's idealistic, Oceania-loving Australian work friend, and Jurgen, a reggae-loving German banker. Paul introduces Claude to a host of new exciting people, including Ariadne, a Greek, philosophy-loving artist and waitress, Clizia, Paul's wife, a former stripper trafficked from Eastern Europe, and Igor, an incredibly creepy "poet" from Eastern Europe, as well as a host of pretentious writers.

The book is a satire of the Euro crisis, Great Recession, and banking in general, with an empathetic look at serious characters in farcial situations.

This book contains examples of:

  • And Call Him "George": Remington finds an ant on the ground, makes it his pet, and names him Roland. Predictably, Roland escapes or dies, and Remington is incredibly distraught.
  • Anonymous Benefactor: A mysterious benefactor pays off all the rent The Ark owed, allowing them to stay open, and pays off Paul's mortgage. Of course, it's only mysterious in-universe; it's pretty evident that Claude is the one behind these gifts.
  • Arc Word: The concept of a mark in a scam shows up a lot with multiple meanings, including in the title. Claude is The Mark of Paul's bank robbery scam, as Paul approaches him and gains his trust with a story tailored to him in order to steal money from BOT. The words "The Mark" connects to the novel's theme of artifice, where everyone is the Mark of an illusion-filled modern reality, an existence filled with lies and entertainment tailored just to them.
  • Author Avatar: Paul, a writer who shares a name and a seven-year gap between his first and second novels with the author. Eventually, Paul writes a book with the same plot as The Mark and the Void, and in a weird way almost everything he makes up near the beginning of the story ends up actually happening. Paul is definitely the self-deprecating variety, as he's a sleazy crook who's trying desperately to keep his life together.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Ish is the only one to catch on to Claude's scheme at the end of the novel to rob the bank, and could at any point turn him in and ruin him. Of course, being Ish, she instead helps cover his tracks to give the biggest 'F*** you' possible to BOT and Blankely for all they've done.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Jurgen seems like a goofy, pleasant Bunny-Ears Lawyer and is one of Claude's closer work friends. However, he sells out Claude by secretly rewriting his report on Royal Irish, leading to BOT making bad investments that Claude is publicly blamed for and ultimately bring down the company. He also is very harsh to Ish after she stirs trouble by advocating for the islanders of Torabundo.
  • Blatant Lies: It's pretty apparent that former stripper Clizia isn't going to "volleyball practice" every night in makeup, high heels, and sexy underwear, but her husband Paul buys it anyway. As Clizia tells Claude, "I believe his lies, he believes mine."
  • Cannot Talk to Women: The first time Claude seriously tries to chat up Ariadne, he completely makes a fool of himself and has to bolt out of the restaurant mid-conversation. Admittedly, a lot of this is due to Paul and Igor's incompetent coaching via earpiece.
  • The Caper: The climax of the book involves a plan by Paul and Igor to break into William O'Hara's house while everyone is away to steal a priceless piece of art. Hilariously, Claude ends up participating while trying to talk them out of it. Even more humorously, they are caught by the writers returning home early, but manage to talk their way out of it.
  • The Con: Paul's "novel research" is actually a front to gather information about BOT's security and layout so that Paul can rob the bank. Once Claude convinces him that investment banks don't actually have money on the premises, Paul loses interest.
  • Con Man: Paul is constantly thinking up get-rich-quick schemes and ways of bilking his friends and acquaintances into funding them.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Porter Blankely, who has left every previous institution in ruins while escaping with huge profits. At the Bank of Torabundo, his "counterintuitive" ways encourage everyone to take on unreasonable amounts of risk. Eventually it is revealed that Blankely tricked his employees into purchasing a lot of worthless holdings from his previous company through a complex scheme that bankrupts BOT but greatly enriches him.
  • Dramedy: Has many, many, ridiculous situations and comedic moments, but also deals with serious issues such as the nature of reality and the European debt crisis, and the characters are handled very seriously.
  • Eagleland: Type 2 (The Boorish) makes an appearance when a cowboy hat-wearing US congressman from Texas sets himself on fire to protest reduced oil subsidies, and his constituents riot in the streets waving confederate flags in response.
  • Earpiece Conversation: Backfires hilariously when Paul and Igor set up Claude with an earpiece so he can ask Ariadne on a date. Paul's suggestions are unhelpfully conversational, and Igor's are distractingly sexual, and Claude becomes so distracted and embarrassed that he bolts out of the interaction without asking her out.
  • The Everyman: Claude, Discussed and Played With. When Paul pitches his novel, he explains that Claude will be the Everyman protagonist, because banking symbolizes and typifies the modern world. When Paul tries to ditch the novel idea, he argues disparagingly that Claude's abstract and affluent life has nothing to do with the ordinary man, something that Claude also realizes when he travels into the countryside and interacts with regular Ireland. However, Claude does fit the role. He comes from a modest background, and is generally a passive player to the wackier characters around him. When confronted with moral quandaries at work, he feels uncomfortable but usually does not take an active stance, as most probably would.
  • Everyone Looks Sexier if French: Discussed. Many characters make jokes about how Claude should have no problem finding women as a Frenchman, but he isn't especially romantically adept in reality.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The title of Bimal Banerjee's new book, Ararat Rat Rap seems like Gratuitous Foreign Language or a bit of poetic eulalia, but it's actually literal- the book is about a rat from Mt. Ararat who raps.
  • Famous-Named Foreigner: the Greek Ariadne is named after the well-known character from the story of Theseus.
  • Fictional Country: Many instances in the book. In addition to Ruritania and Qurac, there are a few fictional island nations in the South Pacific that are important to the story:
    • Torabundo, a tax haven and the legal base of the Bank Of Torabundo. Most of its income is derived from finance and investing, and many of its natural resources have been sold to foreign investors, including its sand. This, combined with climate change, is causing it to sink into the ocean.
    • Kokomoko, an island where the society is based around a gift economy. This island, and the close relationships it has, contrast with the corporate and exploited Torabundo, and is used to critique the banking industry generally, which emphasizes money over human relationships.
  • Fratbro: James Harper and his colleagues are English, cockney-accented fratboy analogues. The whole team sent by the Caliph of Oran are a bunch of 18-year-olds only interested in drinking and making lewd jokes, not banking.
  • Genre Savvy: Paul, who is always trying to turn his knowledge of the cliches of human behavior into money. When Claude seeks him out as a life coach, Claude remarks that Paul has a good intuition for how scenarios should turn out
  • Granola Girl: Ish, as much as you can get away with in banking. She is a former anthropologist with long blonde hair, wears colorful fringed clothing when possible, and is always talking about her love of the indigenous cultures of the South Pacific. Later on in the book she starts a campaign to save the island of Torobundo from destruction from global warming and poor resource management, which her employers do not take kindly.
  • Honest Corporate Executive: Sir Colin Shred, BOT's former CEO, who kept the bank in superb financial health by steering clear of risky investments and believes in the classic view of an investment bank as a go-between between companies and investors. Needless to say, he's viewed as hopelessly old-fashioned and is fired soon after the 2008 Recession.
  • Hookers and Blow: Periodically the BOT employees frequent a strip called Velvet Dreams, where some (especially Howie) do cocaine.
  • Insane Troll Logic: Howie's new financial instrument that supposedly converts human misery and losing investments into profit. Claude tries to get him to explain it, but Howie basically just handwaves it away with "non-Euclidean geometry", which apparently can make 1+1=3.
  • Inside Job: In Paul's initial story idea, his banker robs his own bank, but Claude tells him the idea wouldn't work. Near the end, Claude impulsively does this after all.
  • Just Friends: Ish and Claude are good friends. Claude comes to Ish's defense on a few occasions, and there are a number of hints that Ish has feelings for Claude, but it never goes anywhere.
  • Love Potion: bila, an aphrodisiac from the island of Kokomoko, which supposedly makes someone want to sleep with you if it's blown in their face. If it works at all, it's only through the Florence Nightingale Effect. When Claude uses it, it causes uncontrollable sneezing which causes both Ish and Ariadne to try to take care of him.
  • Mistaken for Gay: Exploited- Paul pretends to be having a lovers quarrel with Claude to get out of paying for their meal at a fancy restaurant. It backfires when Paul runs into his former editor, and Paul and Claude have to maintain the charade at a number of subsequent social functions.
  • Playing Cyrano: Claude hires Paul to help him woo over Ariadne. Cyrano de Bergerac is even mentioned by name.
  • Ponzi Scheme: Howie's fund turns out to be just a scan, with Howie paying back older investors with newer investor's money and just pocketing the rest himself.
  • Qurac: The Caliphate of Oran, a fictional Gulf nation plagued by Islamic terrorists, fueled by oil, and ruled by a single, extremely wealthy man.
  • Ruritania: A modern version with Ectovian Free Democratic Republic, a former Soviet state known mostly for high poverty and emigration rates, political repression, and carpetmaking.
  • A Side Order of Romance:
    • Exploited by Paul, who notes the propensity of men to fall in love with their waitresses and creates a business venture, myhotswaitress.comnote , that monetizes the trope by stalking waitresses then selling their personal info to male admirers.
    • Claude falls in love with Ariadne a waitress at the restaurant he frequents on workdays, who's outside his usual social circle of work colleagues and Paul's friends. Once she finds about about his work as a banker, she loses a lot of respect for him, and his love for her helps push him to betray his employers near the climax of the book.
  • Sitcom Arch-Nemesis: Bimal Bannerjee is talented writer and decent, if pretentious person, but Paul hates him with a passion and flies into rage at any mention of the guy, because his similarly clown-themed novel sold better than Paul's debut For Love Of A Clown.
  • Straw Critic: Mary Cutlass, the critic who Paul blames for dooming is debut novel. According to him, she only likes pretentious and depressing books about genocide.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Exploited by Paul for his business venture, Essentially, their service involves pre-stalking waitresses, and then charging men who have fallen in love with them for their information.
  • Tagalong Kid: Paul's son Remington, who for one reason or another is almost always around when Paul and Claude are meeting or planning something, and is usually disruptive or in the way. Paul even brings him along for an art heist.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Ish "accidentally" blows an aphrodesiac in Claude's face, and stares at him expectantly.
  • Uptown Girl: Claude, a wealthy banker, pursues Ariadne, a working class waitress with leftist views. The class contrast creates some awkwardness when their first "date" consists of accompanying Ariadne as she distributes food to homeless people and protestors against bank bailouts, and Ariadne and her friends continuously slam Claude's profession throughout the outing.
  • Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: Paul's son Remington is named after the titular detective in Remington Steele, which was very popular in Clizia's home country. Paul thinks it's a ludicrous name, but his wife insisted.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Ish is generally unaware of the duplicity embedded in BOT, expecting her superiors to take seriously her well-reasoned but unpopular appeals regarding Royal Irish or the future of Torabundo (the island). Of Ish, Claude says that she has yet to learn the secret of investment banking, which is that all relationships are contingent.
  • Writers Suck: Paul is a loser with almost no moral scruples. Meanwhile, his colleagues are incredibly pretentious and self-absorbed and are comically oblivious to Paul's schemes.