At first, Paul Murray's novel looks as if it has arrived woefully late to the game, or two games: financial-crisis satire and post-modern game-playing. Since the derivatives market, in language and logic, was pretty much born pre-satirised, and since metafiction tends to produce what economists call diminishing returns, The Mark And The Void seems doomed to be unfunny and exhausting. That it is, on occasion, both those things is more a result of its great length than of general mismanagement. Most of the time, Murray's novel is closer to the opposite: hilarious and enthralling.
Murray doesn't alternate between writing about economics and writing about writing but instead rigs a scenario that allows him to write about both - and a lot of other things - at the same time.
In the opening pages, Claude, a French-born financial analyst working in Dublin, realises he is being stalked. His stalker shares a name with the author, although this Paul Murray's sole piece of published fiction is the unacclaimed For The Love Of A Clown; seven years on, there is no sign of a follow-up. Paul explains this situation to Claude, and convinces the banker that he would make an ideal subject for a novel.
So far, so 1980s, when Paul Auster and Martin Amis were forever putting author figures into their novels. More recently, in 2010, a device of this kind turned up as a plot twist in novels by Orhan Pamuk, Jonathan Coe and Peter Carey.
Things become more amusing - though no less convoluted - when, after about 100 pages, Paul the hopeless novelist is revealed as Paul the utter no-hoper. It turns out that his new novel, supposedly based on Joyce's Ulysses, with Claude as its hero, never existed. His motive for befriending Claude had been to gain access to the firm's back office, where he hoped to pull off a digitised bank heist, but his plot is rumbled by Claude before he even gets a chance to bungle it himself. So Paul is not just a failed novelist but a failed embezzler, too. He also lacks all tenderness, which undermines his efforts as a father to his needy, bewildered son, Remington, and as a husband to Clizia.
Instead of Paul writing about Claude, The Mark And The Void is narrated by Claude, writing about Paul. In the process, a character emerges with no apparent redeeming features, whose depths of folly draw out of the real Murray an inventive piece of comic portraiture with, one suspects, no trace of the self-portrait.
At the beginning, Claude goes to a French restaurant that serves nothing "especially Gallic" and finds that the cheese doesn't taste bad exactly but that it "tastes of nothing", adding "I don't think I have ever tasted nothing quite so strongly before".
With his most recent novel, Skippy Dies, Murray showed he could pull off a crowd-pleasing kind of comic tale, the boarding-school farce.
He has taken an extreme, but mostly high-yield, risk in trying his hand at this more divisive subtype: the daftly questing, wild-goose-chasing philosophical comedy that asks a great deal of the reader while - deliberately - offering nothing in return.
The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray
(Hamish Hamilton $37)