Novelist Paul Murray was traveling the world when we first contacted him with the following questions. We thought for a moment it was research and he had embarked on a tour of all the countries still roiling from the 2008 financial meltdown. Not quite. But he did touch down in one epicentre, New York, to launch his latest novel, the brilliantly funny The Mark and the Void, which asks big questions of big banking and features as its protagonist a young banker who falls in with a outlandish Irish writer named – of course – Paul Murray.
Five Dials needed to know: What’s the best way to dredge humour from the financial turmoil of the past seven years? Paul told us he’d get to the answers as soon as he returned to Ireland. Perhaps the jetlag helped with the task. Perhaps Paul was compelled to get up early and survey the landscape of Dublin. The resulting Q and A goes far deeper than expected into the soul of Ireland and the consequences of a decade’s worth of financial turmoil.
How does economic collapse reveal itself in a place like Ireland? What did you notice as it unfolded?
The economic collapse was pretty hard to miss, because Ireland had already been through a dramatic reversal of fortunes in the decade preceding. While the rest of Europe had a rocky start to the 21st Century, Ireland had this incredible boom, and went almost overnight from being a conservative, Catholic, quasi-agrarian backwater to this economic powerhouse. In the space of a couple of years, it became one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Even at the beginning of 2009, you had the former Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, speaking in Honduras about the ‘Irish Model of Development’. And the city I lived in, Dublin, was literally transformed.
It looked, and felt, much as I imagine London did in the 1980s. It was a very status-oriented culture, very materialistic. Conspicuous consumption was rampant. Irish people had never been rich before, and we genuinely didn’t know how to do it. So people watched TV and took their cues from that – from The Hills or The OC or whatever. Everyone was driving SUVs, everyone was wearing sunglasses, everyone was doing Herculean amounts of boozing. It was like a ten-year stag party. And there was, in retrospect, a lot of anxiety behind it. Nobody felt secure; everyone was battling each other to get on the property ladder, to stake out some place in this new country that was accelerating at such a rate that no matter what you did, you always felt on the verge of being left behind.
Because of that anxiety, I guess, everyone refused to see the warning signs until far, far too late. And when the crash came, everything just stopped, literally. The construction frenzy came to a halt, the city was full of these half-built or quarter-built office blocks, like concrete skulls. The skyline was littered with abandoned cranes. And the shops were suddenly empty. During the boom, which went roughly from 1997 to 2007, all of the shops were full all of the time. Likewise the pubs, the restaurants. Every day was like Christmas Eve. And now the streets were deserted. I remember talking to a guy who ran a record shop, who compared it to the weeks immediately after September 11 – just no one around. Pretty soon shops started closing, restaurants started closing, half of the street would be shuttered buildings.
One issue was that no matter how bad things got, the landlords wouldn’t lower the rent. In fact, many of them put up rents subsequent to the crash. Factories closed, thousands of people lost their jobs. Things got very dark indeed. It turned out that a lot of people had taken on serious amounts of debt during the good times: some borrowing against their houses to fund their Celtic Tiger lifestyles – the weekend shopping trips to New York, the holiday home in France, etc. Others had taken out 90-100% mortgages to buy houses. A lot of my friends did this, thinking that the value of houses could only ever go up. Now they found themselves having to make these crippling repayments on houses that were worth 50 or 60% less than they had been. And some simply couldn’t do it.
There were suicides. There were heartbreaking stories in the press all the time. I remember reading about a guy who was living on pigeons that he shot in his back garden. The New York Times infamously ran a story about the horses whose owners could no longer afford their stable fees and had been abandoned out by the Dunsink Observatory. They got their facts slightly wrong, but as a metaphor, the starving horses was unimpeachable.
Also, hundreds of thousands of young people emigrated. In a very small country, this made a very big difference. Suddenly, when I went to a gig or a music festival, everyone there was the same age as me. So many young people packed up and left, and with them they took their energy and their dissent. Ireland has always been very good at exporting its dissidents.
Greed is simply a mode of being that reduces the world to what you want from it. It’s a way of bracketing out everything that doesn’t relate to your own desire.
How did you research greed?
Greed is a tricky one, because on the face of it, if one is not greedy oneself, it seems like such an infantile emotion. I’ve never had a huge amount of interest in accumulating money or stuff. That’s not to laud myself, it’s simply the way I am. And any time I have splurged on some sort of fancy commodity, I’ve always been surprised at how little joy it’s brought me, compared to a walk in the park, say, or a conversation, or learning something new, or reading a book. So initially I felt sort of mystified by and removed from this world I wanted to write about, this world of people who’d put all of their energies exclusively into making money. And I suspected that simply presenting that greed and critiquing it would be quite a boring and sanctimonious read.
But you know, you can be greedy in different ways. You can be greedy for cake, you can be greedy for sex, you can be greedy for time alone. You can be greedy for books. A monk can be as greedy as a banker in that regard. I met a friend who’d given up the rat race to surf full-time, and who found that he’d imported all of the avarice of his old life into the new one – except now he was greedy for waves, for the next big waves, and he resented the sea if the waves weren’t forthcoming. Greed is simply a mode of being that reduces the world to what you want from it. It’s a way of bracketing out everything that doesn’t relate to your own desire. In that regard, it’s a simplification of experience and a simplification of yourself, and from being unbearably complex, life becomes this cartoon of itself wherein you’re either getting what you want or you’re not.
When I started thinking about it that way, greed became much more interesting. It became the symptom of much darker forces. Everyone knows that greed is self-perpetuating, everyone knows that the more you have the more you want, and that the more you pursue what you want the more you hollow out yourself. So what is it about our culture that leads us to valorize greed regardless? What is it about modern experience that we find so terrifying that we take refuge in this strategy that is so vacuous and so obviously doesn’t work, in terms of personal happiness?
Increasingly I began to think that the experience of the bankers was one that differed from my own only in terms of degree – that we’re all being taught to see the world as this atomistically lonely place that can only be survived by journeying deeper into yourself, building the walls around you ever higher.
‘No one wants to see poverty,’ one of your characters, Ariadne, remarks at one point. She goes on to point out: ‘They cover it up with talk of the future.’ Why is the future so important to the Irish?
Talking about the future is one of the best ways not to talk about the past, and even better, not to talk about the present. I don’t think this is a specifically Irish thing, but as with the boom and bust in financial capitalism, it’s something that happened in such an extreme and compressed way here that the lines are perhaps easier to discern.
The world has become a scary place! Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the triumph of capitalism, a lot of the protections and safety nets that had been introduced over the previous fifty or sixty years have been removed. Life is more precarious now, it’s harder to raise a family, it’s harder to own your own home, it’s harder to find any kind of permanent work. People are poorer for the very simple reason that a larger chunk of everybody’s money is being kicked upstairs to the 1% and the 0.1%. And we’re told that that’s progress. We’re kind of dangled these little futuristic gadgets by way of distraction, we’re made to feel like we’ve been given this special dispensation according to which we can live, at least partly, in the future.
George Packer had a really interesting piece in the New Yorker about how our obsession with technology mirrors the obsession with cinema in the America of the 1930s. In times of great anxiety, people want to escape. In the 30s, during the Great Depression, they escaped through the fantasies of the silver screen. Now we escape through the various iterations of the iPhone. The fact that it’s got a 21 mega-pixel camera, or whatever, helps us to not think about the fact that by the time we retire, pensions will be a thing of the past.
In Ireland perhaps that will to the future is even stronger, because our past is so very dark. Like Stephen Dedalus says in Ulysses, ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.’ This is a country that has always been ruled by foreign empires, from the Vikings to the Normans to the British to the Catholic Church, and most recently by the forces of globalisation and the troika – the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank.
The Irish are used to being disempowered and I think one consequence of that is to misuse power when we do have it – to act, putting it simply, greedily, to grab as much as we can for ourselves rather than thinking in any kind of ‘big picture’ way about what kind of society we want to live in. Instead ‘the future’ is conjured up as this utopian space where all of our problems will be solved, when we’re finished lining our own pockets. And that utopian space is sufficient to cancel out the dystopian space of the past, the centuries of brutalization, starvation and horror that the Irish experienced at the hands of others, before learning to do it for themselves.
Tell us your banking history. What has your relationship with banks been like over the years? Did you ever see them as dramatic settings?
Well, the first job I had out of college was in the Operations Centre of one of the big Irish retail banks. It was this enormous underground bunker where all of the cheques lodged that day were sent. My job was to put them into the processing machine, where they’d be scanned and barcoded and filmed. The machine was very sensitive, so if a cheque had a corner or, God forbid, a staple, the whole thing would come grinding to a halt and I’d have to call the engineer.
So I stood there all day long like a chump, trying to keep the processing machine sweet, making minimum wage while millions of pounds flowed through my fingers. It was pretty alienating, frankly. I started work at 2pm, and finished only when all the cheques were done. Towards Christmas, there were more and more – this was the late 90s, and people still paid mostly by cheque – and you mightn’t finish till 1 or 2 in the morning. I think that’s where my ambiguous feelings towards capitalism may have begun. The Centre had its own generator, so you couldn’t even hope for a power cut.
Beyond that, my dealings with the bank were kept mostly to a minimum. I spent most of the Celtic Tiger writing a book, and even if I’d wanted to I couldn’t have bought a house. Quite early on I resigned myself to living on the lower rungs of the new Irish hierarchy. I thought I could get a job as live-in poet somewhere, singing the praises of a property developer maybe, like the bards of old. Later on, watching my friends having to deal with these debts they’d been encouraged to take on, I felt like I’d dodged the bullet.
I saw banks as the opposite of dramatic. In The Day Today, Steve Coogan was featured in this genius sketch, a soap opera set in a Bureau de Change that showcased just how undramatic and dull that world can be. But paradoxically that’s what attracted me to them. These institutions that are so central to everything, so taken for granted that we don’t even need to think about them – that’s exactly the kind of environment a writer should be looking at. Because as I say in the book, the banks are the heart, the world-within-the-world, the engine room of literally everything that’s happening around us.
And they tell us more about ourselves, the kind of people we are, than all of the little details we imagine make us special or distinct. In the same way that what you do at work, eight hours a day five days a week, ultimately counts for more on a personal and on a social scale, than the poems you write in your spare time, or your butterfly collection or whatever it might be. We’re sort of in denial about who we are as people and I think art colludes with that to a certain degree by largely bracketing out the working world.
That said, it took me a long time to understand how the banking system worked. The first time I even heard of an investment bank was when my sister got a job in the Bank of Bermuda. I thought that was funny. Hitherto I’d associated Bermuda almost exclusively with ships and airplanes disappearing. It seemed like a deeply unwise place to store one’s money. Only later did I discover that that is what investment banking is all about.
In the same way, I was attracted to the International Financial Services Centre because it seemed on the face of it to have so little to do with my life and life in Ireland generally. The Centre was built at the end of the 1980s. It’s the financial district, and it essentially functions as a tax haven. It’s very lightly regulated. Multinationals use it to do all of the things they don’t want anyone else to see. I found it fascinating because they’ve worked so hard to make it look and feel like a non-place, somewhere that is right in the middle of Dublin but is absolutely deracinated, absolutely ahistorical. For that reason maybe, Irish writers – with the exception of crime writers – have been slow to write about it.
And yet, looked at another way, it’s the most Irish place there is. For starters, it’s the economic engine of the country, with billions and billions of investors’ money coming in and out. But beyond that, it employs this Irish gift for looking the other way, for making anything problematic simply disappear. The truth in Ireland, more so I would contend than in other countries, is something malleable, fungible, contingent. Maths and numbers and abstraction, these all seem like very un-Irish things; but imagining other worlds, turning reality into a hall of mirrors, these are things we are very good at. And the hall of mirrors is where business at its highest level is conducted nowadays.
These institutions that are so central to everything, so taken for granted that we don’t even need to think about them — that’s exactly the kind of environment a writer should be looking at.
What’s the funniest financial term? Credit default swap?
I’m a big fan of the collateralized debt obligation (CDO) and its spin-offs, the synthetic collateralized debt obligation and the ‘CDO-of-CDOs’, or CDO-squared.
How does a writer find humour in the workings of the financial world?
See above. The smartest people in the world were falling over themselves to put money in CDOs of CDOs, despite the fact that no one actually understood what they were. That’s what I learned over time – that beneath the three-piece suits and the big serious glass buildings, international finance basically looks like a Marx Brothers film.
Has Ireland’s attitude toward the financial sector changed since you were researching the book?
I think people are more wary or cynical about the financial system, but at the same time, they feel even less able to change it. Again, that’s not just an Irish phenomenon. I was just in the US and most of the people I spoke to there seemed to feel the same sense of impotence. Nobody’s gone to prison. Very, very few people even lost their jobs. Dick Fuld, the former head of Lehman Brothers, has reinvented himself as a financial adviser, so if you want the opinion of the guy who presided over the largest bankruptcy in US history, give him a call. He still has the $480 million he took home before the crash.
In Ireland, there’s a government inquiry taking place right now, with the major players, bankers, developers, ex-ministers and so on all being hauled up to account for what happened. But at this stage, the various villains, who for a couple of years were running scared, have now realized that they’re not actually going to be punished or made accountable in any way for what they did, so they’re using the inquiry to proclaim their innocence and basically give the entire country the finger. It’s all a bit dispiriting, and you have to wonder whether any lessons at all have been learned. In the US the hedge funds are already betting on the next crash, which they predict will come from defaulting college loans. I guess we’ll just have to hope there’s a new iPhone available when that day comes.
What’s your PIN number?
I don’t use banks anymore: instead, I safeguard my money using a patented combination of very old and very new technologies. I keep it in Bitcoin, which I hide in an old sock.