Capital by John Lanchester
Supposedly, every American novelist is driven by the ungetriddable-of desire to write the “Great American Novel” – the big book that encases all America is and could be (or can no longer be). There’s no chance any American writer can succeed, of course. But if you don’t even try, you aren’t even a serious player. I wonder if there’s a similar condition affecting London-based writers and if “Capital” is meant to be John Lanchester’s Shot At The Title. If it is…better luck next time.
The novel seems to position itself pretty clearly as a “Statement Book” about what London ‘means’ in the early 21st century. It’s a fat novel, centred around Pepys Road, somewhere in the anonymotopia of South London. That’s where I live, and I therefore have to declare an interest and wonder if my overly critical response arises in part from feeling this missed any mark I would recognise. If the name “Pepys Road” is calculated to suggest a connection with one past chronicler of the ordinary indignities and unheroic derring-do of life in the capital city, it’s not a connection that’s mined to any great effect. The roving eye of the omniscient narrator – omniscient but somewhat lacking in curiosity – sweeps about this road of large-ish late 19th century houses, describing the separate lives of the inhabitants. We get a brief history of the street at the start, and I was wondering if there were going to be more frequent flashbacks into the social archaeology of the setting, but the book pretty much roots itself in the present, being set between December 2007 and late 2008 – specifically, around that tipping point when the collapse of Lehman’s, among other events, indicated the onset of the global financial crisis (which Lanchester himself had given clear warnings of in a non-fiction book he wrote a few years ago, which set out to explain the lawless alchemy of the financial markets in lay person’s terms). Late on, as one character runs through a sudden squall of rain, on the day he is unceremoniously kicked out of his job, we are told “It was sinking in with people everywhere, as it gradually dawned on them that hard times were moving in like a band of rain.” Yes, it’s that kind of novel. The kind that continues to give gainful employment to the pathetic fallacy. And I don’t like that “gradually” dawned.
The residents of Pepys Road, into whose lives we drop, feel like a grab-bag of Modern Britain, a cast of characters devised via a focus group. There’s a post-yuppie city banker and his greedy wife who are obsessed, for slightly different reasons, with the size of the bonus Roger will be getting at Christmas. (The wife is such a poor comic stereotype – the brittle, uncaring, self-obsessed, Ab-Fab style white wine guzzler – that credibility drains from the page alarmingly whenever she appears.) There’s a shrewd, taciturn Polish builder who sees London as no more than a place he will pass through, in order to build up a pot of gold that will give him a comfortable return to his “real life” back in Poland. There’s an ungainly but gifted young Senegalese footballer, snapped up by an unnamed Premiership team and now, with his upright, ex-policeman father, experiencing the onrush of life in a world of alien riches. There are the squabbling Muslim brothers whose family runs the cornershop. One lives in a world of early rises, family responsibilities and sober appraisal of his customers’ desires; the other is a layabout dreamer who dresses up his fecklessness as a spiritual detachment from the gaudiness of the Western world. (But we are shown that, underneath it all, the family – including a stereotyped fearsome matriarch who flies in from Lahore, to no very great effect despite considerable build-up – are close knit and cuddly and, hey, y’know, Just Like Us in a way that never felt anything other than gauche and patronising. ) There is the elderly, widowed working class woman, the only survivor from the past in Pepys Road. She doesn’t get to do much. Indeed, none of the women are well drawn and are either the most passive characters in the book or are presented as unduly aggressive.
The book proceeds, through brief chapters (and, credit to the writer, several hundred pages do at least pass lickety-split), to follow the courses of the characters’ lives over little more than a year. The tone is (I think) meant to be broadly comic but in trying to equate inconsequentiality with a kind of “warmth of life” feel, it doesn’t have anything to say. The narrator doesn’t even seem that interested, at times, in the inner lives of the characters, many of whom come across as nothing more than paper-chain people clipped from the free-sheet newspapers that litter all Tube carriages. It’s one thing for novelists to try and bring a journalistic eye to the proceedings, but, as Pound’s formula has it, “Literature is news that stays news.” This just feels like a scan of the newspapers. Not the same thing. The Zimbabwean illegal immigrant parking warden. The Bansky-style, anonymous “edgy” urban artist with his monster-ego and contempt for the bourgeoisie fuelled by his own guilty shame over his comfortable suburban upbringing. The Ray Winstone-like wideboy football agent taking a fatherly interest in his young charge and effing-and-blinding his way through meetings with suits to get his boy the best deal. It’s all soap opera stuff but aiming to underplay the soapy melodrama through plots that don’t necessarily go anywhere whilst at the same time picking, like a guilty dieter, at the comforting, well-stocked chocolate box of assorted plot-movers, including a hidden suitcase full of money and a romantic yearning for an exotic stranger. Does this book want to document the ordinary and, though doing so, dignify it – or does it feel the ordinary can’t ever be enough and there has to be something beneath it all? It’s a classic dilemma but “Capital”, in running for both buses, catches neither.
None of the separate stories really come to anything – they mostly fizzle out and are left unconcluded. Unlike other “social panorama” novels of broadly comic intent, there’s no culmination scene in which the characters all collide within the confines of an event that forces them together. Most of the key characters, for all that they live in the same street, never interact at all. In one sense – fine; I get the point. It’s saying that, in London, people live anonymously. Lives run in parallel tracks and the little sufferings going on inside the head of one person will remain utterly unknown to the person next to them, whether that person next to them is a passenger on the Tube or a partner asleep in the same bed. OK, fair enough. But what then? Each separate strand ambles towards a reasonably soap opera-ish conclusion and then stops. With some of the stories, such as the plotline focused on the illegal immigrant who winds up in the grim limbo of a detention centre, it almost feels like Lanchester forgot her. (Maybe that’s the point?)
There is some attempt to brace the book with an overarching frame: at the start of the novel, an unknown person begins a campaign of mild terror, filming the houses on Pepys Road and then sending to each a postcard bearing a picture of one of the houses and the words “We Want What You Have”. This is initially offered high in the novel’s mix – so there is a sense that one (or more) of the semi-faceless demons of the city (Class War? Islamist terror? BNP? Drug Gangs?) is targeting these people for the crime of complacent ordinariness. The threat dissipates then strikes again, stepped up with a web-hate element, and all manner of nasty parcels being pushed through the letter boxes – dead birds and excrement and the like. The police become involved – there’s an attempt to create a “different” kind of police character who ends up another flatline in the novel’s cast because everything we are told about him seems calculated to try and get away from stereotypes of hard-bitten London coppers, thus laying bare the degree of contrivance behind this eager, informed detective.
I thought Lanchester would have been better off leaving the mystery unsolved: if we don’t find out who is behind the terror campaign, with its opaque motives, then it becomes a more metaphysical, abstract threat, an almost-personifying of various kinds of urban paranoia. But resolve it he does and it’s a deeply uninteresting, unsatisfying conclusion that renders this overarching device far less compelling than it first seemed. Perhaps this, too, is another way through which the book wants to replicate the experience of city life: it’s always the more mundane explanation that wins through. To give some credit (and yes – the pun is intended, thank you), there is a reasonable sense of thematic coherence across the plots as the other, financial meaning of the title comes through continually. Pretty much each story is defined, to some degree, by characters arriving at a realisation about the nature of ‘capital’ in the money sense of the term. Not that this helps them, or helped me to feel that there was a greater significance behind all the meandering.
I started this novel with high hopes, having enjoyed a few years back John Lanchester’s “Mr Philips.” That book did what this aims at and misses. In telling the story of a painfully ordinary, ordered life once any sense of purpose has been subtracted and only the shell of order remains, “Mr Philips” gets to a real sense of pathos through its miniaturism – its focus on the terror of the small details. I had the feeling that Mr Philips’ story could have ended up as just one of the broad-brush strands in this book and that what Lanchester might have been hoping for was a series of “Mr Phillips” style narratives running in tandem, showing the lives of quiet-to-noisy desperation that define city living. But, in this book, more proves so much less. “Mr Phillips” offers the tiny, magnified to terrible proportions; “Capital” shrinks a panorama to a postcard size, and loses a great deal in the process. This is not the Great London Novel, nor even close to being in the running, for me. (If you’re interested, I’d be looking at the likes of “Mother London” by Michael Moorcock and “Downriver” by Iain Sinclair as the champs). As it happens, I was reading “Capital” alongside a splendid non-fiction book called “Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now…” edited by Craig Taylor. This oral history of contemporary London life is riveting and I should blog about it, I guess. Put head-to-head with “Capital”, it looks like – sad to say it – it will be a crushing six goal victory for Non-fiction over the Novel.