By John Lanchester
Every now and then a novel comes along that unsettles you in a special way the author did not intend. You are left patting your pockets, as it were, running through a mental inventory: keys (check), phone (check), intellectual curiosity (check), faith in fiction… Now where is that? It normally boils down to a matter of inflated expectations, the enemy of all strong attachments. I’ve been loving John Lanchester’s work since his blissful novel Mr. Phillips (2000), but his new one, about London and the financial crisis, is a heartbreaker.
Capital promises hefty topics and high seriousness: “Epic in scope yet intimate,” as the press release puts it. It even punningly lifts a title from some big book or other that changed the course of history. There’s no doubt Capital is fairly compelling. In fact, it is that vulgar and titillating beast the “page-turner,” a horrible phrase, suggesting that novels are best ranked according to how quickly we dispose of them. What Capital lacks is page-stasis, page-returning: those moments that make a person look up from the print to pause and then reread. And here’s the rub: those epiphanies can be found in Lanchester’s nonfiction account of how banks gambled away the economy, I.O.U: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (2010). It cannot be said that Lanchester hasn’t done his homework researching Capital. The novel’s flatness is a useful reminder that mature fiction requires more than just facts, intelligence and technical skill—a hard lesson for our professionalized age to assimilate.
Capital focuses on Pepys Road, a newly gentrified South London location where, come 2007, the property boom has shuffled together long-term residents with wealthy new neighbors in houses that are suddenly priced in the millions. From this street, Lanchester draws a cast of characters to meet at least the baseline definition of “all walks of life.” Petunia Howe, the senior citizen, is terminally ill; Roger Yount, the trader, is asleep at the wheel when his firm is in trouble; Zbigniew Tomascewski is an industrious Polish builder; the endearing Kamal family runs the corner shop and has a run-in with religious extremists. And so on.
These are uninspired stories told with conviction and holding more than a tincture of truth. Lanchester’s third-person narration picks up nicely on the idiolect of each character as the author shifts between points of view. It’s deftly done, even if the prose is workaday stuff. But where these representative characters should amount collectively to a statement about the way we live now, what actually links them is an empty plot device. Someone is sending postcards to the houses on Pepys Road reading “We Want What You Have.” It’s the first stage in a campaign of intimidation that starts out petty and rapidly escalates into something trivial. I’m not giving anything away by saying that the culprit is no revolutionary in a Guy Fawkes mask. The mystery only smacks of political conflict, and it’s clear almost from the get-go that the hidden motives will prove banal. I expect Lanchester intended something much more impressive, but the result comes off as a sleight of hand, a trick to make the novel seem bolder than it is.
There’s a general ambience of inoffensiveness that’s out of place, given the subject matter. Anger would not be an unreasonable response to bad decisions, prompted by greed, leading to global recession and massive unemployment. That said, Lanchester’s emollient tone is much in vogue. The latest generation of established novelists—Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, Nick Hornby, Jennifer Egan and the whole Believer–attuned bunch, to pick a few out the hat—is insistently amiable. Contemporary novels are not keen to get tough on human folly. Like nearly all of today’s literary fiction, Capital is devoid of real villains, with its two malign characters, a trader and an Islamist, coming across as immature rather than wicked.
This lighthearted breeziness hobbles the narrative, but it’s also the book’s greatest appeal. Here is Lanchester riffing on the subject of the Internet: “Given the infinite freedom of intellectual movement, it turned out that what people mainly want to do is look at pictures of Kelly Brook’s tits.” Considering fretful parents, he observes: “the person doing the worrying experiences it as a form of love; the person being worried about experiences it as a form of control.” This is good, companionable stuff, but avuncular in the additional and rarely used sense that your actual uncle could have said these things.
Compare those down-home quotes with this passage from I.O.U. about the Cold War: “For decades there was the equivalent of an ideological beauty contest between the capitalist West and the Communist East, both of them vying to look as if they offered their citizens the better, fairer way of life. The result in the East was oppression; the result in the West was free schooling, universal health care, weeks of paid holiday, and a consistent, across the board rise in opportunities and rights… And then the good guys won, the beauty contest came to an end, and the decades of Western progress in relation to equality and individual rights came to an end.” Putting aside the careless repetition (typical of Lanchester), that’s quite a statement. So is this, from the conclusion: “The sad truth is that the real fix is going to have to wait until after the next crash.”
The most powerful nation in the world lost its moral compass just at the moment it affirmed its absolute supremacy. Not only that, but the pain of the recent financial crisis is going to be nothing compared to what’s to come, a sequel made inevitable by a continued lack of financial regulation and one we will be in poor shape to weather. That’s a powerful vision, and one Lanchester has failed to dramatize in Capital.
To be fair, when it comes to fictionalizing the financial crisis, the dimensions of the task are inhuman, and fiction deals in the personal and immediate. Yet, we have grown to expect novelists to respond to current events in the manner of journalists despite the fact novels require long gestation and inner compulsion. War and Peace is about a conflict that occurred 50 years prior to its publication; Dickens, who we think of as London’s preeminent social novelist, mostly wrote about the city of his parents’ generation. If we didn’t demand novels that synch with the news cycle, Capital might have lived up to its name, though we might not be reading it for another 30 years.