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February 17, 2013

Capital by John Lanchester

CapitalI wanted to read John Lanchester’s novel Capital partly because I enjoy his writing in the London Review of Books, but mostly because Matt Kavanagh’s review of the book in The Globe & Mail made me crazy. This paragraph in particular:

[Capital] gets off to an ingenious start, prompted by the realization that “houses had become so valuable to people who already lived in them, and so expensive for people who had recently moved into them, that they had become central actors in their own right.” For a culture where mortgages are equivalent to a secularized notion of fate (whether you believe in a kindly God or a cruel one depends entirely on the movement of interest rates), Lanchester’s insight is the basis for a revitalized social novel that reveals how the abstract realm of economic relations structure everyday experience.

Have neither Kavanagh nor Lanchester himself ever read an English novel? Particularly those with such central characters as Pemberley, Thornfield Hall, Wuthering Heights, or Brideshead? Even Darlington Hall, or Hundreds Hall more recently. How about Howards End? And speaking of a “social novel that reveals how the abstract realm of economic relations structure everyday experience”, how about Howards End again? Or Pride and Prejudice? Not an English novel, but the best contemporary novel I’ve read yet to deal with the 2008 financial meltdown is Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz, a novel which is profoundly about real estate, but then what novel isn’t? (I love this line from Enright’s book: “You think it’s about sex, then you remember the money…”) And not a novel at all, but what about Three Guineas? A Room of One’s Own? Abstract realm indeed.

Kavanagh’s review was as irksome as it was familiar, a critic lauding a male writer for venturing into female territory (because what is a novel about houses than “domestic fiction” after all?) and declaring that territory still yet to be explored. I wanted to read Lanchester’s book in order to understand if anything new was really at work here, and also because it seemed like the kind of novel I would probably enjoy.

“…immensely enjoyable, but important too.” So goes Claire Messud’s blurb on the novel’s back cover, and she’s right on both accounts if we assume “important” to mean, “notable non-fiction writer makes up tales based on current events”. The “enjoyable” part is pretty straightforward, Capital being a novel that is not altogether novel and which relies on traditional narrative shapes and patterns. Its heft is mainly in page count only (500), and the pages fly by in this story of colliding, disparate and parallel lives. They mainly take place on Pepys Road, a street in London whose homes were built in 19th century to cater to lower middle-class families but which had become, in the 21st century, residences for the rich: “The thing which made them rich was the very fact that they lived in Pepys Road. They were rich simply because of that, because all the houses in Pepys Road, as if by magic, were now worth millions of pounds.”

The residents include the Younts, Arabella and her husband Roger who works for a bank in The City and begins the novel urgently calculating the likelihood of his million pound bonus, whose acquisition has become vital in order for the family to sustain their extravagant lifestyle. At the other end of the scale is Petunia Howe, in her 80s and growing frail, her daughter struggling with an awareness that her mother’s death is going to make her a very wealthy woman. In between them live an African footballer, a family of Pakistani immigrants who run and live above the corner shop, and coming and going are the Polish builder (who is hired three times by Arabella Yount to paint the same wall a different shade of white), the Hungarian nanny, and the Zimbabwean traffic warden who is working illegally.

Kavanagh’s analysis of Capital is interesting when he remarks that the book “seems to ignore the lesson of [Lanchester’s earlier non-fiction book] I.O.U.: However individualistic our culture may be, the financial crisis reveals that we’re all in this together. The novel’s characters seem oddly unaffected by one another, particularly in their encounters with others outside their own station.” The characters in Capital only come together briefly for a community meeting after a strange campaign involving somebody leaving postcards on every doorstep with images of each of the houses on Pepys Road, marked with the note, “We Want What You Have”. Someone is photographing the houses, and also filming them, posting the images on the internet, and the residents of Pepys Road are uncomfortable with this attention. (“They love it… It’s that great British middle-class battle cry: “Something must be done!”… They’ll stop at nothing once they get their indignation going… It gives them an excuse to talk about property prices. It’s the only time they’re ever allowed to talk openly about money, so it’s no wonder it gets them excited.” )

Lanchester’s observations about the English and their peculiarities are one of this novel’s great charms, particularly as seen through the eyes of the book’s non-English characters. The trouble, however, is that rather than functioning as actual characters, Lanchester’s people are so forced to stand for England proper that they are types instead of individuals. No one ever takes a ride on a train or in a car without conjecturing about city and nation flying by outside the window. Everything here is functioning on a grander scale.

Capital is a novel that calls to mind the works of Zadie Smith, partly because it revisits ideas of a multicultural England and also of religious extremism that she wrote about in her first novel White Teeth. But also because Capital is similar in approach to Smith’s latest novel NW. While NW was a novel as flawed as it was ambitious, its reach counts for something. Smith understood that to write a novel which recreates a city, the shape of the novel itself would have to be recreated too, pushed further beyond the linear, the grid of well-drawn careful streets. She understood further that for a novel to truly encompass the diversity of characters she was writing about, she would need to employ a similar diversity of narrative styles. The shape of the world of Lanchester’s illegally-employed traffic warden, for example, would have to be vastly different from the well-born City banker. While both walk the same streets, those streets are not the same at all to each character, and moreover, their paces differ, as does their language, the rhythm of their thoughts and ideas.

For Capital to be successful as a piece of literature instead of merely “enjoyable and important”, Lanchester would have had to demonstrate this narrative divide, and he doesn’t even attempt to. Though it is possible that his novel is more enjoyable for the lapse, from the point of view of anyone who loves an absorbing and unchallenging read, but for this reason and others, Capital is certainly less important than we’ve been lead to believe.

One thought on “Capital by John Lanchester”

  1. Tanya says:

    Capital is on my TBR list. Reading your review has moved it up the queue a little. Just need to get my hands on it!

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