The Mark and the Void – Paul Murray’s take on the Celtic Tiger

Written for The Guardian:


This is it, at last: a fine work of fiction set in the present day that kicks all those asses that so urgently need to be kicked. Twenty pages in and I wanted to tour the nation’s nine remaining bookshops with Murray and shout from the back: “That’s what I’m talking about, people; this is what a real novel should be. Fuck all that ersatz pap you’ve been sold; read this!”

The Mark and the Void is the best novel I have reviewed by someone of my own generation writing on this side of the Atlantic. It’s unabashedly intelligent, it’s ingeniously inventive, it’s richly alive in language, thought and character; it’s read-the-whole-page-again funny and philosophically engaged with the great questions and circumstances of our times. It is the answer to the question of what a serious and seriously talented contemporary novelist should be writing.

I say “set in the present day”, but what I actually mean is that it feels like it’s set right now. When I was reading it, I turned off the midnight news (about the European financial crisis) to read the last 50 pages (about the European financial crisis) and it was as if I were reading an impossibly ingenious up-to-the-second artistic gloss on the bulletin just gone.

Set in Dublin, it is the story of a French banker, Claude Martingale, and his bromantic relationship with a struggling novelist, Paul Murray. The plot is a joke – as plots so often are; but, in this case, it is a joke on several interesting levels. Basically, Paul is desperately trying to raise money, because he bought a ludicrous flat with a stupendous mortgage when the Celtic Tiger was at full roar. So he comes up with the idea of robbing a bank – a plan that he executes by pretending to Claude that he is writing a novel in which he wants to make Claude the Everyman hero. This gives Paul the excuse to come in and stake out the bank with his sidekick, Igor. The plan is terrible, of course – it’s a merchant bank, for one thing, and doesn’t have a safe or any actual money.

The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood review – an absorbing insight into human creativity…

For The Guardian:

Note to all readers: keep going. I spent 137 pages of The Ecliptic thinking it was a very good but misconceived novel in which a talented male author had taken an artistically self-sabotaging decision to make his first-person protagonist – Elspeth Conroy, a Glaswegian painter – a woman with an oddly oblique antiquarian voice that even her own biography rendered suspect. It would ruin the plot if I were to tell you why my margin notes turned out not to be wholly germane. Suffice to say that the answers can be found in the fourth part, entitled “Clarity”, in which we learn how the scenes in the artists’ colony off the coast of Istanbul in parts one and three relate to Elspeth’s biography.

This is only Wood’s second novel – his first, The Bellwether Revivals, won the Commonwealth book prize – and as such, The Ecliptic represents a resounding achievement. Though I was not a huge fan of part one, it was everywhere apparent that Wood is the real deal: scrupulous in his choice of words, adroit with plot, assiduous about drawing character and engagingly pursuing an ambitious theme. On this last point, The Ecliptic is one of the most absorbing explorations of the artistic process that I’ve ever read in fiction – both in the painterly sense and in the wider psychological sense of how genuine day-in day-out creativity works. Or doesn’t. “Talent sinks,” Wood writes, “into the lightless depths like so much rope unless you keep a firm hold of it, but squeeze too tight and it will surely drag you under.”

And yes, Wood is startlingly good at conjuring images. Holden, Elspeth’s first teacher, would twist his ear “as though turning off a valve”. The love of her life – the sottish older artist Jim Culvers – is “not the sort of man for whom you felt an immediate attraction”, but “over time, he quietly detuned the strings of your heart, until his peculiar key became so familiar that you believed it to be the only one”. (I love how Wood rescues that cliche to create something moving, new and apposite.) Later, Elspeth will “wind in” her smile. These human moments are so very hard to write about inventively and attentively with any kind of freshness; but Wood does so often and deftly.