Saturday, March 17, 2012

Capital by John Lanchester

Includes some spoilers - but tried to not give too much away

The pre-release hyperbole for "Capital" by John Lanchester is to hail it as a novel for our times - finally a contemporary novelist getting his teeth into the cause and reasons for the credit crunch. Lanchester wrote a highly acclaimed book about the crash - "Whoops!" - but perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise, that on finishing this curiously old fashioned novel, that it is "capital" as in London, rather than "capital" as in money, that is Lanchester's fascination. Certainly a novelist who has kept his powder dry since 2002's "Fragrant Harbour" has clearly not been desperate to write a fiction for the age.

The structure of "Capital" is a clever one - but that's the old fashioned element as well - for it takes one street, Pepys Road, in London, where middling houses have become multi-million assets, and goes down the road focussing on a small number of the inhabitants. An "ordinary street" in the capital (I'm guessing Wandsworth but may be a little out), there is an old lady who has lived there all her life, an Asian family with a corner shop on the ground floor, a football agent who is renting out to visiting foreign footballers, and the Younts, a new money family - Roger works in the city, Arabella spends the money he earns. "Capital" is a satire, or at least, Lanchester's tone is satirical. The short chapters take us carefully through these lives, but also in a secondary selection of characters that are connected to the street - an optimistic Zimbabwean traffic warden, a taciturn Polish builder, a beautiful Hungarian au pair, a secretive performance artist. Yes, Lanchester doesn't go far in his hunting for stereotypes. When one of the Asian brothers turns out to have been involved with a terrorist group in Chechnya the only surprise is that Iqbal, who he knew back then, is a Belgian.

There are attempts at a broader humour in the novel, but that's not Lanchester's strong suit, he's far better at the minutiae of his character's lives. Like other recent big "state of the nation" books by Jonathan Frantzen and Philip Hensher, there's a lack of discrimination about what to include. Rather than being about the characters in Pepys road, it soon becomes about this wider cast - no bad thing, perhaps - but a lessening of the impact. We get to know far more about some of the peripheral characters (such as the policeman Mills) than the main ones. The linking thread is not the credit crunch, but a postcard campaign that starts mysterious and ends up sinister, "We want what you have" say the postcards. This is a MacGuffin of the first order, and once he's started with it, Lanchester doesn't really know what to do with it. We assume its an art prank - but then it becomes a confusion. Far stronger on character than plot, the novel has some of the disconcerting enjambements that are so common in contemporary novels, plot lines petering out, or tending to not be about that much. Iqbal disappears and never reappears and we only have the dealings of what happens in its wake; the police - more plod-like than you'd believe possible - chase one hare and end up with another one; the performance artist has his anonymity stripped from him just when its convenient to do so.

The central characters in some ways are the Younts - but the scenes at the bank and at their home don't endear them to the readers. Rich beyond everyone's dreams, they are still financially stretched, and relying on this year's bonus. When that doesn't come you think "oh", and when the bank itself collapses Lehman-like, it happens offstage and no longer matters (as Roger has already lost his job.) In "Bonfire of the Vanities" a "master of the universe" accidentally runs into the real world that his privilege helps him avoid with disastrous consequence. In "Money" Martin Amis talks of money as a force of nature - that is just there, regardless, until of course, his John Self finds himself as the victim of a giant scam - yet in "Capital" there is no jeopardy - one family sells their mother's home and become "rich", another has to sell up and downsize. Or rather there is no jeopardy for the middle classes. In the best bits of the novel Lanchester sides himself with the Zimbabwean, the Pole, the Asian shopkeepers. In the arbitrary cruelty of modern life it is the weakest who fall and fail.

Don't get me wrong, "Capital", despite its length is an enjoyable enough read, but it wouldn't be unfair to call it slightly cosey. Chapters end abruptly as soon as there's an action point, and often these happen off-stage. Our narrator is an omniscient one and seems to be content on adopting a wry tone as if telling an after dinner speech. There's clearly been quite a lot of research gone into the novel, but as much about the strangenesses of the asylum system as the financial mechanisms of the city. At times it feels like the ordinary people and their ordinary lives have been equally researched. The cultural signifiers seem dropped in, as if researched by an alien who is just checking out Earth-life for the first time. In many ways, its an accessible read - that weird thing, the literary blockbuster - I can imagine that the BBC or C4 has already optioned it for a 3-part series, probably using one of their producers' houses as a backdrop. It tells something of contemporary London life, but hasn't anything of the artistic or storytelling bravado of "London Fields" or Micheal Bracewell's excellent "The Conclave." There is much enjoyment to be had in Lanchester's cast of characters, but also something "upstairs downstairs" about the rich and the poor in their lives they hardly see (except when they're an attractive au pair.) The real clue to the book's purpose I think is in the name of the road he writes about - "Pepys Road" - for Lanchester, like Pepys, is at his best when he is being an interested chronicler of everyday London life.

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