“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,…