By John Lanchester
It’s been a long time – too long – since we’ve had a novel from John Lanchester. Fans of his writing, however, may have guessed what he’s been working on for the last few years by following his fascination with the subject of the 2008 economic crisis in the pages of the London Review of Books and his non-fiction primer, I.O.U. A novel about life in London at the time of the crash, Capital turns this epic story of financial collapse into fictional gold.
The title can be read as making London out to be a neo-imperial power center or just a big pile of money. Either way, it exerts a gravitational pull that draws a colourful international cast of characters into its orbit. Among these are a family of Pakistani shop owners, a Hungarian nanny, a Polish contractor, a teenage Senegalese soccer phenom, and a refugee Zimbabwean traffic warden. Their lives, along with the lives of some enervated natives (a banker, an elderly widow, a street artist) intersect on Pepys Road, a newly gentrified address in South London.
About Pepys Road it is said that “If you already lived there, you were rich. If you wanted to move there, you had to be rich.” And who, in this capital of capital, doesn’t want to be rich? As a series of sinister anonymous mailings to the residents of Pepys Road puts it, “We Want What You Have.” The mystery posed by these letters, the fact that they could plausibly be coming from someone who is rich or poor, a next-door neighbour or a terrorist, is just one of the morally complicated border areas Lanchester explores.
It’s hard work for a book structured like this – one that shuttles briskly among the lives of over a dozen different characters who only indirectly come into contact with one another – to stay focused and maintain a constant level of interest. But while the plot can get a bit loose and shaky, and some of the characters are more entertaining than others (an investment banker and his shopaholic wife are the chief targets of satire, and tend to steal the show), Lanchester does a remarkable job of holding it all together.
The constant theme and narrative glue is money: who has it, how’d they get it, and what do they do with it when they’ve got it. Frank without being cynical, Lanchester describes a world that spins on a cash axis. Money isn’t everything, but it’s a part of everything: Art isn’t just a business, but it is a business; sex is both a natural expression of mutual affection and a perk of power; shopping is the only therapy for those afflicted with the disease of consumerism; we are all possessed of basic human rights, but not all of us can afford to exercise them.
Like a latter-day Balzac, Lanchester surveys the human comedy of capital from top to bottom while demonstrating a genuine curiosity and sympathy for the lives of his characters. But where Balzac was a realist, the world Lanchester describes is one becoming progressively unhinged from reality. Most critiques of the recent rise to dominance of the financial sector contrast it to a “real economy” where things are made and goods and services are bought and sold. Lanchester’s novel contains both economies, the real and the unreal, but it seems as though the unreal is winning out. The real London is dying, only kept alive by an infusion of sturdier, more practical, “traditional” values from abroad. Meanwhile, it seems that all the things that money can buy in the city are transient, outrageously priced and of no worth.
It’s hard to believe 2008 was a one-off, something that could never happen again. And this is what gives Capital the sting in its tail. A pair of closing mantras – that there must be change, that things can’t go on like this forever – are only examples of wishful thinking: natural under the circumstances but not convincingly optimistic. To be sure there will be change, but Lanchester leaves us with no reason to think it will be for the better.
Review first published in the Toronto Star July 8, 2012.