John Lanchester’s Capital

If you already lived there, you were rich. If you wanted to move there, you had to be rich. It was the first time in history this had ever been true.

I approached John Lanchester’s Capital with high expectations: the reviews had been uniformly good, speaking of a panoramic, Dickensian, post-crash, state of the nation novel.  I was, frankly, disappointed.  I really enjoyed Lanchester’s journalistic explanation of the financial crash,  Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No-One Can Pay, and had heard that he was researching the world of finance so he could put it in a novel. But Capital, although it is set during the early days of the crash, and although a banker is one of the main characters, is not that book at all.

The novel begins promisingly as, with a Dickensian tone, Lanchester introduces Pepys Road, a street in Clapham which is to be the central axis of the various stories that are developed in the book:

Over its history, almost everything that could have happened in Pepys Road, in south London, had happened. Many, many people had fallen in love and out of love; a young girl had had her first kiss, an old man had exhaled his last breath, a solicitor on his way back from the Underground station after work had looked up at the sky, swept blue by the wind, and had a sudden sense of religious consolation, a feeling that this life cannot possibly be all, and that it is not possible for consciousness to end with the end of life; babies had died of diphtheria, and people had shot up heroin in bathrooms, and young mothers had cried with their overwhelming sense of fatigue and isolation, and people had planned to escape, and schemed for their big break, and vegged out in front of televisions, and set fire to their kitchens by forgetting to turn the chip pan off, and fallen off ladders, and experienced everything that can happen in the run of life, birth and death and love and hate and happiness and sadness and complex feeling and simple feeling and every shade of emotion in between.

Now, however, history had sprung an astonishing plot twist on the residents of Pepys Road. For the first time in history, the people who lived in the street were, by global and maybe even by local standards, 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 of the houses in Pepys Road, as if by magic, were now worth millions of pounds.

This caused a strange reversal. For most of its history, the street was lived in by more or less the kind of people it was built for: the aspiring not-too-well-off. They were happy to live there, and living there was part of a busy and determined attempt to do better, to make a good life for themselves and their families. But the houses were the backdrop to their lives: they were an important part of life but they were a set where events took place, rather than the principal characters. Now, however, the 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.

This happened at first slowly, gradually, as average prices crept up through the lower hundred thousands, and then, as people from the financial industry discovered the area, and house prices in general began to rise sharply, and people began to be paid huge bonuses, bonuses that were three or four times their notional annual pay, bonuses which were big multiples of the national average salary, and a general climate of hysteria affected everything to do with house prices – then, suddenly, prices began to go up so quickly that it was as if they had a will of their own. There was a sentence that rang down the decades, a very English sentence: “Did you hear what they got for the house down the road?”

A variety of characters, some of them wearily predictable, have some kind of connection with the road: a Harrow-educated banker and his brainless wife; the family of Pakistanis who run the corner shop; an elderly widow who just happens to be the grandmother of a Banksy-like anonymous guerilla artist; a Zimbabwean traffic warden who is an illegal immigrant; a builder from Poland; a 17-year-old Senegalese football prodigy who has been signed by a major London football club.

And many more. As Theo Tait observed in his Guardian review, ‘half an hour’s state-of-the-nation brainstorming, you feel, might have produced these dramatis personae’.  What makes things worse is that these characters never really come to life and, while Lanchester is constantly jumping from one person to another in 107 short chapters, we don’t really come to care very much about them.  The characters are not sketched in much depth, while the brief chapters, in which often nothing very much happens, keep killing the momentum.  The storylines of the various characters overlap in only the smallest ways, so they tend not to illuminate each other’s personalities or motivations.

Lanchester avoids bringing his characters together for some great revelatory scene at the end. Fair enough, he may be making a point about how lives in a big city – even of those who live in the same street – only occasionally intersect. But the lack of almost any kind of plot made this feel less like a novel  and more like a series of journalistic case studies. As Leo Robson observed in the New Statesman: ‘vignettes don’t add up to a vision’, while Theo Tait wrote in The Guardian:

Plotwise, Lanchester has chosen not to have the staple set-piece of the panoramic novel: the climactic scene where all the disparate characters meet. This has the advantage of being true to London – where the paths of neighbours often never cross – but it leaves him with an episodic, soapy story whose meaning always threatens to become clear, but never quite does.

‘We want what you’ve got’: that’s the message written on the back of cards posted through each door on Pepys Road at the outset of the novel, each card bearing a photo of the recipient’s front door on the front.  More such cards follow intermittently as the chapters progress. But these disturbing and mysterious actions never develop into anything that grips the reader or seems to signify much.

Indeed, Lanchester seems at pains to reject conventional plot expectations: a terrorist plot appears and fades away, a suitcase stuffed with half a million pounds in old notes does not make the finder rich, the young footballer does not make it big – and so on. Again, fair enough, lives generally don’t conform to to some dramatic story arc concluding in a neat resolution. But, coupled with the lack of any clear theme at all did leave me wondering when I had finished the book: what was the point?

John Lanchester