Recall in 2004, Karl Rove, then an aide to President Bush, used the phrase “reality-based community” to refer to journalists and others who “believe that solutions emerge from [their] judicious study of discernible reality.”
“That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” Rove instructed. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”
A similar arrogance travels like quicksilver through the Torabundo, an Irish merchant bank at the heart of Paul Murray’s satiric tour de force, “The Mark and the Void.”
Set in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse, “The Mark and the Void” revolves around that period’s winners, which includes Torabundo and Claude, a bumbling French equity analyst who despite his success is beginning to doubt the point of his work.
While everyone else in the mid 2000s played hot potato with bad real-estate loans, Torabundo laid low and now has a trove of choices.
Claude himself becomes one of the beneficiaries of this good sense. He has leapt from the sinking raft of a blue-collar background and joined this ship just as it sets sail on a sea of cash.
As the novel opens, Torabundo has a new CEO — fresh from the wreckage of American capital markets, of which he was one of the worst offenders — and a board eager to press its advantage and buy a new bank, however toxic its debt.
“It is still affected by global events,” some of the traders quip in one scene, dismissing a possible mark, or target, for takeover, “instead of setting its own agenda, reality wise.”
This question of what is real — and what are the consequences of not knowing — recurs throughout “The Mark and the Void.” Murray begins asking it with the nondescript office park, where Torabundo keeps its headquarters to take advantage of the tax laws that Ireland uses to lure big business.
The International Financial Service Centre is a home for “shadow banking’’ — a strategy in which corporations set up shop in tax havens with “billions in assets but no employees’’ to press the advantage of their clients. But Claude’s reality problem cuts deeper and more personal.
He has developed a shadow, a man in black who is following him, watching his every move. Finally Claude confronts him and discovers that he is not an assassin or private detective, but a novelist named Paul who claims to be writing a book on banking. Claude is his mark: The man he will study to create his tale’s everyman.
This is quite a tricksy plot move, but it works because “The Mark and the Void” is not about writing a novel, or about Paul Murray. It is rather a brilliant study in competing modes of creating reality.
Banking, the book points out, is a mode of living through abstractions; we buy and sell investments as a way of harnessing our relationship with, or making money off, the flow of reality.
Fiction, however, with its blurred dreams and refractory points, is not a way to control reality or even profit off it. Novels become a way to look at things from the side.
Murray elegantly offers us a vantage on the period’s excesses: the eight-figure bonuses awarded after the collapse; the fact that some bankers knew their loans would fail, and, in fact, needed them to fail to earn those big bonuses.
As Torabundo wades deeper into greater risks, we follow Claude and his cohorts out to strip clubs, ghastly nightclubs, and the Boschean world where small fortunes are spent to woo big fortunes to a bank.
All these details stream into the novel like a black trickle of greed.
Eventually it turns out that Paul isn’t actually writing a novel, but planning a robbery. Claude takes pity on him and hires Paul to write the story of his life instead: to tell him what to do.
Meanwhile, the bank of Torabundo, once so sound of mind and principle but now under the direction of a new CEO, sets out to recreate the conditions of its colleagues’ collapses.
It is not a plot spoiler to say fiction wins. Murray has correctly identified that it isn’t just finance that threatens fiction’s purchase on our imagination, it’s everything in modern life: “Phones. Games. Porn. Horse tranquilizers,’’ one character says. “I’m not complaining, I’m just saying these are the market realities.”
But none of these rival the 2,000-pixel-per-inch definition of Murray’s prose. Time and again he proves that language alone is a far better abstract system for understanding the world than any financial data.
There is a great deal of fun in “The Mark and the Void,” and that’s important, because what it tells us about our world is very serious indeed. And we have trained ourselves out of that instinct, just as we have trained ourselves not to look at a gaping hole created by trillions in government bailouts.
“If James Joyce was writing Ulysses today,” Paul, asks us, “where would he begin?” Here, cloaked in humor and modern events, is Murray’s answer and boldly, subtly, he’s doing something political in telling this story: He’s asking the reader to be his everyman.
THE MARK AND THE VOID
By Paul Murray. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 459 pp., $27
John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, a new literary biannual, published by Grove.