A capital novel

Clairvoyant vision of London
February 22, 2012

“Zbigniew had once had a sense of the British as a moderate, restrained nation. It was funny to think of that now. It wasn’t true at all. They drank like mad people. They drank to make themselves happy, and because alcohol was an end in itself. It was a good thing and people want good things, want more and more of them. So, because alcohol was good, the British wanted more and more of it.” Seen from the perspective of an immigrant—a plumber from Warsaw in John Lanchester’s new novel Capital (Faber)—the British may well appear an inordinate, pleasure-seeking, drunken lot. The impression is all the more credible because it belongs to an outsider, and when reading Capital one can’t help remember that the author grew up mainly in Hong Kong and settled in London in the mid-1970s. The view Lanchester presents of the city has a freshness of vision, an emperor-with-no clothes quality, which one associates with expatriate writers. As well as being a luminous rendition of the dislocated life that goes with contemporary capitalism, this is a clairvoyant vision of London at the start of the 21st century.

In an interview Lanchester has commented on the chatter of politicians about community, which he rightly sees as having little bearing on how we actually live. Our lives are not spent together. They intersect and disconnect continuously, with jobs and relationships being taken up without any expectation of permanence and lightly left behind when they cease to satisfy. For all its inherent fragility and intermittent sadness this is how most of us want to live. Talk of community is not just false to fact, but so far removed from any discernible reality or aspiration as to be virtually meaningless.

The intertwining and unwinding of private worlds, which is the core of urban life today, gives Capital not only its content but also its structure: a series of discrete stories, separate but linked in ways the characters don’t realise. The scene is Pepys Road, a nondescript street south of the river in which every house has risen in value to millions of pounds. Each of the houses receives a card with the message: “We want what you have.” What follows features a wide range of characters: over-leveraged investment banker Roger and his acquisitive wife Arabella; Freddy, a Senegalese footballer, and his father; long-term resident Petunia, ill and failing, and her grandson, a Banksy-like artist; the Asian Kamal family who run the corner shop; Quentina, a Zimbabwean political refugee working as a traffic warden; and Zbigniew, the Polish plumber. The characters are vividly realised and absorbing. As an experiment in realism this is profoundly impressive, all the more so since the writing is so unobtrusively compelling.

Marketed as a “post-crash, state-of-the nation” novel, Capital was in fact begun in 2005, well before the crash, and put to one side while Lanchester wrote Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (2010), his non-fictional treatment of the financial crisis. Capital’s subject matter is actually larger than the hype suggests. A novel of 21st-century London, it deals with the world’s most globalised settlement; no other great city is so open to the cross-border flux of people and money. Again, though the stories the book tells unfold during the year when the crisis hit, this isn’t a rendition of the impact of the crash—something that has been attempted several times, most successfully in Sebastian Faulks’s 2009 novel A Week in December.

Capital is a fictional meditation on the human realities of capitalism itself—a theme far more enduring than the financial crisis, though the latter is probably only in its early phases. Initially seen as a pause in the onward march of the free market, the crisis is coming to be viewed in almost apocalyptic terms. Certainly this is no blip in the business cycle. The insolvency of many of the sovereign states in the developed world and the growth of a new class of proles from the remains of what used to be the middle class are unprecedented developments. Yet capitalism isn’t ending, just changing its shape as it has done often in the past. The kind that prevailed in western countries over the past 20 years may be in decline, but new versions are on the rise. The west will have to get used to being relatively poorer and some countries—because of their colossal debts—will have to accept the fact that they will be worse off for some time. Most likely much of what we take for granted will be gone in a decade or so. But the permanently provisional, highly individualised way of life Lanchester describes will still be there, significantly altered but not essentially changed: a light way of being, which most people find more interesting than any of the alternatives.