Cogs in an Enormous Machine: The Millions Interviews Paul Murray

October 20, 2015 | 6 books mentioned 3 13 min read


There’s a bit in The Catcher in the Rye where Holden Caulfield is talking about the sort of thing he values in a reading experience. “What really knocks me out,” he says, “is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” This line kept floating into my mind as I was reading Paul Murray’s new novel The Mark and the Void, his first since the massive success of 2010’s Skippy Dies. Because this new novel — which is, like its predecessor, a large and generous and furiously funny book, and which intertwines crises in both capitalism and literary creativity — really did knock me out, and because its author is a friend I could call up whenever I felt like it. But apart from the odd text to inform him I’d just LOL’ed at a particular bit of the novel, I didn’t really avail of that proximity. Strangely — or maybe not strangely at all — it wasn’t until I was asked to interview him for The Millions that I actually sat down and had a proper conversation with him about the book, and about his work in general.

covercoverThere aren’t very many contemporary novelists whose work so audaciously mixes rich human comedy and bracing intellectual ambition. Just as Skippy Dies somehow managed to tie together its disparate elements — string theory, the First World War, the sadness and alienation of middle-class teenage Irish boys — into a funny and moving whole, The Mark and the Void pulls off an equally unlikely synthesis of arcane financial intrigue, artful metafiction, and ruthless satire. It’s set in a Dublin investment bank during the crazy, stupid early days of Ireland’s economic crisis. For all that it deals with some deeply unfunny material, I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much reading a novel.

Having a conversation with Paul is, in a lot of ways, very much like reading him. You need to set aside quite a lot of time, but it will absolutely be worth it; you’ll be led down a great many scenic conversational detours and intellectual byroads, and you’ll see see things in a different way by the time he’s finished talking. It’s also, crucially, a lot of fun, and you’ll laugh a great deal, often in a way that deepens a sense of the seriousness of the things you’re laughing at.

The Millions: The Mark and the Void is saturated in an anxiety about the novel as a form, about its waning cultural powers. There’s this serious unease in the book, which manifests as a constant comic interrogation of why the hell a person would write a novel in the first place. This is interesting on its own terms, but particularly within the context you were writing it, by which I mean the pretty overwhelming success of Skippy Dies. Because that novel did on a large scale what people worry the novel is no longer capable of doing: it had a significant emotional and intellectual impact on a large number of readers. Please discuss.

Paul Murray: I actually thought that would be the first thing people would ask about this book, but it hasn’t been. The one thing I didn’t think would happen with Skippy Dies was that it would be a quote-unquote “bestseller.” Because even aside from the so-called “Death of the Novel,” it just didn’t feel to me that the world was that kind of place. But when Skippy came out, people read it who I wouldn’t have expected to read it. And that was an interesting corrective to a lot of the assumptions that I had about the world. Old ladies would come up to me and say that they had read it. And old ladies have seen a lot: they’ve raised children and grandchildren. So they’re well equipped to deal with reading something like Skippy Dies.

As are teenagers. And you hear all the time about how teenagers don’t read books, but teenagers were reading this book. So in a way, it was this weird rebuttal of everything I presumed to be the case about the world, which is that it’s in terminal decline and everyone just marches in lock step to these horrific corporate forces. And so that kind of made things difficult. It was actually much easier for me to think of the world as full of empty drones who don’t get me. And now it’s like, okay, fuck, there are actually a lot of sensitive, engaged, sweet-natured people out there. So that was a wonderful and strange experience. But I’m a total pessimist, obviously, and so if the book had done badly I would have responded to it by berating myself for being a fraud, and telling myself to give up now. And when something good happens, my brain goes, well that’s it, you might as well roll up your tent now and move on, because you’ve had your moment in the sun.

TM: The obvious move after a book like Skippy would have been to write something explicitly less ambitious. A palate-cleansing novella or, you know, a tidy little Ian McEwan number. The Mark and the Void is not that.

PM: In a sense, Skippy was destructive in terms of the kind of success it had. It was a slow burner. It had good reviews when it came out in the U.K., and that carries a book for about three weeks. But it kept reappearing. Like, it would make it onto the Booker longlist, or Donna Tartt or Bret Easton Ellis would say how much they liked it, or David Cameron would bring it on holidays to Ibiza or whatever. So for a year, it kept sort of reappearing to the public. But that made it difficult to start something new. I tried writing short stories, and I can’t write short stories. With any creative endeavor, you put everything into it. And what you feel at the end is this terrible anxiety. And the success doesn’t really assuage that anxiety. In fact it reinforces it, because the natural question is the question of what you’re going to do next, and all you can see is nothingness. I find nothingness and entropy interesting ideas to think about at the best of times, and maybe working as a writer, you’re quite familiar with these things, because you’re just looking at your screen, and thinking “I’ve got nothing, absolutely nothing.” You’re back in the old foul rag and bone shop of the heart, you know? So anxiety is a natural condition for writers to be working out of. There’s this sort of weird feedback loop with writing, where you can’t quite figure out whether the anxiety happens because of the writing or whether you write because you’re an anxious person.

TM: The economic and cultural anxieties at the heart of The Mark and the Void play themselves out in an interesting way, through a kind of dialectic between the banker and the writer characters, and between the ideas of finance and art.

PM: Yeah. Well, the two major characters are obviously a writer and a banker. And I didn’t want the book to be just me standing on a soap box ranting about bankers. Because the interesting thing about the financial crash was that bankers were enabled by the rest of the world; to a large degree, everybody started thinking like bankers. From the 1980s onwards, ordinary people have thought in a more and more materialistic way. So we’ve seen the rise of the economist as public intellectual, of the economist as seer. Theatre and film and literature, and all these things by which we get some bearing on our existence, those are now seen as just sort of frivolities for the middle classes. And there’s this weirdly Stalinist idea now that what we need to be doing is taking our place as functioning cogs in this enormous machine. And so people are increasingly encouraged to self-objectify. And so in Ireland, during the boom years, you were increasingly made to feel that the way that people should conceive of themselves in society was in economic terms. The questions to ask were questions like “What value do I have for the economy?” and “How best can I contribute to it?” There is nothing more noble now, at an institutional level or at a personal level, than asking the question “Where is the money?” It’s no longer problematic for that to be the first question to ask.

TM: Right. That’s now, in a way, the essential public-spirited question. The question of how you can contribute to the economy.

PM: That’s it. And so to a certain degree, bankers have become scapegoats, the people we like to point the finger at as a country. But the banker’s success is predicated to a degree on us all wanting to be bankers, wanting to have that security and wanting to be top dog in this society that has become increasingly atomized by these very forces of corporatism and money. And we’re all going, “Okay, that’s how it is, and that’s fine, as long as I’m on top”. So my book is about this banker who has worked very hard to be on top, and has achieved that, and finds himself feeling very isolated and empty, and without a story. He doesn’t really have a narrative. To a certain degree the path to success he’s chosen is one that’s designed to lift him out of the world. And to a degree, everybody is partly a banker and partly a writer.

TM: Right, but those distinctions are very much complicated in the book. Obviously my reading of it is always going to be influenced by the fact that we’re friends, but to the extent that I recognized you in the book, it was in Claude (the banker) rather than Paul (the writer). Claude is much more thoughtful and sensitive and politically engaged than Paul, who is more or less a philistine, and solely preoccupied by making a buck wherever he can.

PM: Well…

TM: I know what you’re going to say now. You’re going to say there’s much more of you in Paul. So let me just say that Paul’s not completely awful, that I did have some sympathy for him as a reader…

PM: Well, initially this book came from an idea I’d started on ages ago, and never took anywhere. It was a kind of a comic two-hander about those two guys, the banker and the writer. It was much broader, and the banker was this kind of Roland Barthes figure — I was really into Barthes at the time — who just went around meditating on existence. And the writer was much more of an asshole than he is in this version. And the setting was the most boring place imaginable, which was the IFSC (Irish Financial Services Centre). And I left it because there wasn’t enough to it. I thought it would be easy to write, and funny, and it wasn’t.

TM: Was it that it didn’t feel worth doing?

PM: That’s it. Writing is already a state of anxiety, just creatively speaking. But to work as a writer during the Celtic Tiger years, in the most turbo-charged super-capitalist place in the Western world, it was a terrifying place to work as a writer at that time.

TM: It was like a 51st state of America that seceded because the U.S. wasn’t neoliberal enough or something.

PM: It was the place all the U.S. companies came to because we’d ripped up the rulebook. It was the frontier, the “Wild West of Capitalism,” as The New York Times called it. Writing had become increasingly irrelevant in the culture, so that was this existential anxiety. But then you also had this other very literal thing of, like, “What? They put up my rent again? They put up the price of milk again?” And at that point, everyone in the country seemed to have so much money that, like, who even knew or cared what milk cost? Well, I was the mug who knew what milk cost. I was the mug who was a writer. And you felt beaten over the head with this idea that you’d taken the wrong turn, and you were pursuing something antediluvian and self-harming. So that anxiety feeds into the character of Paul in the book. Writing about a writer is obviously problematic anyway. It’s sort of the last refuge of a scoundrel. You know, you hear about some new movie, and Al Pacino’s in it, and he’s a writer with writer’s block. And you immediately think, well, fuck that. So the only way I could really do it was to ham it up, and to do a sort of Curb Your Enthusiasm thing with it.

TM: But isn’t writer’s block actually paradoxically fertile ground for creativity? So many books and films, so many plots, seem to spring from this sterile situation of the writer who can’t write.

PM: Totally. You know, happiness writes white, and writing also writes white. But people can relate to that state of impotence. Of doing something that feels completely at odds with everything else that’s going on. People know what it’s like to fail, and writers block is just this living second-by-second hell of failure, where you’re doing nothing but failing. I don’t know of any profession where you experience failing as consistently and unambiguously as writing.

TM: And yet there’s often this weirdly romantic idea of writer’s block in fiction and film, where it’s seen as this strangely authentic and pure state of creativity. And you totally subvert that in The Mark and the Void.

covercoverPM: I read Faulkner’s The Wild Palms recently. It’s not a great book, but there’s this terrific last line: “Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.” I don’t know that that’s a terrible thing. Robert Frost described literature as “a momentary stay against confusion.” It’s not going to solve all your problems, but it will give you a few seconds whereby you can adjust your stance so that when the hammer falls it will hit you on the shoulder rather than the middle of your cranium. So I think Paul’s problem in the book is the problem that every writer has. I set up this guy to be asking himself, Why should I continue working as a writer in a culture that doesn’t care about writing. Then I had to try to answer that question, and I don’t know that I succeeded. But all you can do is offer yourself temporary answers. Paul is facing the problem of what do you write about? If you don’t want to be the Capital W Writer, the sage or the seer figure who delivers these atrocities, these beautiful representations of other people’s pain for upper-middle-class consumers to enjoy, then you’re faced with this nothingness of just a bunch of people just swiping their phones. That’s all there is, so how do you write about that? Ben Lerner answers that question amazingly in 10:04, I think, which is a great book about there being nothing to write about. But how do you do that again? And why?

TM: Some of the funniest parts in The Mark and the Void deal with the shortfall between the bankers’ need to see Paul as this seer-like artist figure and the person he actually is. And that made me think about Ireland, and how the banker and the writer are these two poles of the country’s self-perception.

PM: I think the bankers like the idea of Paul, but in this very patronizing way. “The meaning monkey,” as Paul refers to himself. And that sort of reflects how rich people literally patronize the arts. They don’t necessarily like the art per se, but they like the idea of having creativity by proxy.

TM: It’s possibly a bit like how Irish people generally like the idea of there being a Gaeltacht, of there still being areas where the Irish language is spoken as a living language by people in their everyday lives. We don’t necessarily want to go there, or speak the language ourselves, but we feel somehow reassured by knowing that it’s out there, that people are still doing it.

coverPM: Totally. I had this bit that I kept trying to put in the book, but it wouldn’t fit anywhere. Paul and Claude are talking, and Paul is saying how nobody cares about books anymore, and Claude says that surely writers are more esteemed in Ireland than anywhere else in the world, because you name all these bridges after them and so on. And Paul says that esteeming someone is the easiest way of not reading them. You can esteem someone and name a bridge after them and then get back to reading the Ikea catalogue. The book is very critical of Ireland, obviously, but I do think Ireland is this very interesting place, this very weird and singular place. I still find myself envious of American writers. Because that’s the empire, and most of what we think of as modern life, that’s where it’s happening. But the idea that Jonathan Franzen or whoever is having a more echt experience than we are: that’s exactly the mentality that Joyce was trying to interrogate or refute in Ulysses. The idea that life is elsewhere is itself the universal.

TM: Right. The fact that Dublin is a minor city in the world is very much part of the point of Ulysses, and what makes it so great and universal. The Mark and the Void is explicitly situated in the most boring and characterless part of Dublin, the IFSC, which is this large area of the city that nobody who doesn’t work there ever thinks about. It’s a kind of non-Dublin.

PM: It’s very much non-Dublin. The IFSC is on the one hand marginal, but on the other hand it’s very much part of this neoliberal network, that is like the dominant world order. It’s an important place because all these multinational corporations are coming here precisely to do all the stuff that’s illegal in other countries. They come here, in a way, to express themselves more completely. So it’s kind of this weird mix of marginality and centrality.

TM: In an economic sense, Ireland is kind of an open city, a surrendered polity. A place where these very powerful supra-state forces are invited to come and do their bidding. And this is sort of reflected in your book by the fact that Paul is the only major character who is Irish, right?

PM: Yes. I guess I wanted it to feel like a kind of post-Empire story, where all of these structures and illusions have collapsed. We actually did reach the giddy height, at one point, of feeling like we had a place in the world. And then all those things went from under us, and we’re right back to being this sort of marginal state. And, as you say, completely at the behest of these incredibly powerful financial institutions, which nobody on the ground knows that much about.

TM: I sometimes wonder whether the main role that Ireland’s “Great Writers” play in contemporary culture is that they, or their images, give us a kind of foothold, or a sense of ourselves. The idea of Joyce, or Beckett, or Wilde, gives us something to hold onto in terms of national identity, when the reality is much more nebulous. They make it easier for us to fool ourselves into thinking we know who we are.

PM: I think literature is not actually especially important to Ireland. If you go to Germany, people there read like motherfuckers. And if you do a reading there, they charge an entry fee, and you get a couple of hundred people, even if you’re not that well known an author. And they want an hour and a half of your time. Because they’re serious readers. And in Germany, they have this really romantic idea of Ireland. But without wanting to do the place down, Ireland really doesn’t care much about literature per se. I mean, there are extracts of Ulysses embroidered on the seats in Aer Lingus seats. But you have to wonder what it means, other than that you can sit there and fart into this great work of Modernist literature on your flight to New York.

TM: I think Joyce might have relished that idea.

PM: Maybe, yes. But the old school idea of the novelist as seer — of, you know, Philip Roth or whoever issuing his edicts from on high every few years — that’s gone. And maybe what’s left is the idea of the novelist as this somewhat abject figure, who identifies with the downtrodden and so on, which is another very old idea. Because I think that is the position you’re putting yourself in as a fiction writer now. In a world that’s dominated by economics, you’re doing something as childish as making up stories that are untrue, and everyone knows they’re untrue. Everyone else is telling you that they’re telling you the truth — the banker and the politician, the priest and the doctor. That’s something that I tried to get at in the book, the idea that the novelist is the one person you can trust to be lying.

is a staff writer for The Millions and a book columnist for Slate. His ebook, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever, was published by The Millions in 2013. His book To Be a Machine will be published by Doubleday in March 2017. He lives in Dublin.


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