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John Lanchester: Capital

There have been various articles, not least by Lanchester himself, about why writers do not tackle financial issues. This is not entirely true – from Bonfire of the Vanities to A Week in December to Other People’s Money – there have certainly been a few. However, despite the title, despite Lanchester’s previous work, Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay and despite various reviews, this is not one of them. This is not to say that the financial crisis does not appear in this book – it very much does. However, it is not the sole focus of the book, not least because the book was started well before the financial crisis hit. While it certainly deals with financial issues, though not just those related to the 2008 crisis, it deals with other issues. And while the title may make you think (probably intentionally) of money, it actually is more related to capital in the sense of capital city, as London (or a part of it) is the focus of the book.

The book starts with the story of Pepys Road. There are two real Pepys Roads in London, one in Raynes Park and one in New Cross. This is neither of the two. Lanchester does not tell us where it is, except that it is in central London and near a tube station. In short, it is entirely fictitious. Houses here were initially built for the lower-middle classes, not, as Lanchester tells us, for lawyers or doctors but for the people who worked for them. The demographics changed over the years and now the houses are very expensive – one in not particularly good condition sells for £1.5 million during the book. They are inhabited by lawyers, doctors, bankers and the like. Many of them have had work done on them – basements dug, attics or lofts put on top, extensions or conservatories added. The novel is about some of the people who live in Pepys Road and about some of the people they come into contact with.

Many of the characters are people who you might meet in London. There is Petunia Howe, a widow in her eighties, who is both the oldest inhabitant and also the one who has lived the longest in Pepys Road, her house having been owned by her grandfather. Her house, unlike many of the others, has not been improved. Her daughter lives in Essex with her husband and they have a son, Graham, who, we soon learn, is a Banksy-type artist called Smitty. He remains anonymous (even his parents and grandmother are unaware of his dual identity) and produces works such as holes in the ground and then sells expensive books of photos of his art. Despite his fame and his work, he is good to his grandmother. It is the financial couple where this book somewhat falls down. As Lanchester has shown in his book Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay and his articles, he does not like bankers and their kind. This is fine and a sentiment we can all share but, when writing a book about them, there is a danger of falling into cheap satire and this is what Lanchester does with the Yount family. Roger Yount is the banker. He is actually in charge of a department in a bank dealing in currency trades. He is obsessed with getting a £1 million bonus for the current year. With Roger, his assistant Mark and the other staff of the bank, we are soon into Bonfire of the Vanities territory, i.e. the greedy and lustful banker. With his wife, Arabella, we move into Absolutely Fabulous territory, which means a woman whose only interest is in spending money and who thinks that she has a divine right to spend what she wants where she wants. It is amusing and makes the point but Absolutely Fabulous does it better.

The book is strong on immigrants which, of course, it would have to be, to represent modern London There is the corner shop, run by a Pakistani family, where we get issues of religion, the British perception of Muslims and integration. We have the almost-illegal immigrant who has become a traffic warden on Pepys Road, parking restrictions being the one issue which seems to make all the British furious. She is from Zimbabwe, where she was beaten and tortured and cannot go back but she cannot stay either. And then there is the successful immigrant, a seventeen-year old Senegalese boy, who is a top footballer and who has been recruited by a London Premier League team (obviously the team is not specified) and now lives on the street with his father, a former policeman who hates England but wants his son to do well. Finally, there are the more recent immigrants, the East Europeans. Zbigniew does a lot of building work for the residents and he is painted in a generally fair light, being shown to be both more honest and more efficient than his English counterparts. The Younts use him and also have a Hungarian nanny, Matya, who is also shown in a positive light.

While the novel is one of those slice of life novels – think Perec‘s La Vie mode d’emploi (Life: A User’s Manual) – it also has a few plots running through it. Virtually all the main characters have something happen to them, completely out of the blue, that completely changes their life. Whether Lanchester is making the point that we are not in control of our lives and that we can suddenly be affected by something totally out of control or whether he is just livening up the plot is not clear but it certainly works well. The main plot strand that runs through the entire book starts right at the beginning of the book. We see an unknown person filming the street in the early morning. The residents start to receive postcards, which show close-ups of their house numbers and have the line We Want What You Have. They continue to receive these. They then receive DVDs of a film taken of the entire street. Finally, there is an anonymous blog showing their houses one by one. Some residents think that this is an estate agent promotion. Others find it just mildly annoying. Others are more upset and the police are called in.

There is no doubt that this is a well-told story of London in 2008. The story and plot are good, the characters varied and interesting. Yes, it does descend into cheap satire with the Younts but makes up for this fault with other well-drawn characters. But, though it is a well-told story and a good read, it is not great literature. Lanchester wanted to show a slice of London life and throw in a few good plot elements. He has done that and he has done it well but, while a clever work, it is not a particularly original work. Bankers (and their wives) are bad. Immigrants generally have a hard time of it in London. There is (Shock! Horror!) racial prejudice in London. People want to get on with their lives, which generally involves making money. No great insights there.

Publishing history

First published 2012 by Faber & Faber