London has become so separate from the rest of England that anyone who wishes to write about it will have to match the essential weirdness of a disembodied city. It is the cultural, political, and financial capital of the country, but also, in parts, the most deprived and conflicted. This means that, of course, there’s a lot to say about London. It has been busy lately. But to take on the capital as a subject for a novel seems increasingly maniacal. A.A. Gill, in a recent piece for the New York Times, called London “the most successful mongrel casserole anywhere.” It has achieved this while having a uniquely unwelcoming atmosphere. For an international city it feels closed, cordoned-off, as if even when you’re there you’re not really there. If you want to be ignored, go to London. Perhaps this is why the best recent novels about the city are radically subjective, interested in perceptions, ghosts, and pseudo-history rather than The Way We Live Now.
Intelligent writers since Dickens have dodged the city-wide survey and focused on their own polemics and pathologies. Iain Sinclair’s novels pack in a lot of factual information about the capital, but he is less interested in shedding light than casting shadows. Peter Ackroyd’s exhaustive peregrinations are strictly solo, partly because he writes faster than we can read, while Will Self and J.G. Ballard have veered towards the satirical and surreal. None of these writers catches the whole thing and, perhaps with the exception of Ackroyd’s non-fiction, they are all as interested in their own obsessions as they are in the social and political reality.
Anyone familiar with John Lanchester’s work will know that he does not sit comfortably with this roster at all. Weirdly he has managed to get half a dozen books into a writing career without establishing a particular style. His first novel, The Debt to Pleasure, is a decadent and Nabokovian riff on gastronomy and murder, completely unlike, say, Fragrant Harbor, which is a teetotal take on the recent history of Hong Kong. That novel was published ten years ago and for a while it seemed like he had ditched fiction for its straighter cousin. After a series of fantastic essays for the London Review of Books, and a family memoir published in 2007, Lanchester wrote I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, a brief and accessible examination of the financial crash and its various follies. “I began working on the subject as part of the background to a novel, and soon realized that I had stumbled across the most interesting story I’ve ever found,” he writes in the introduction to I.O.U. The novel he was researching, we now know, was Capital.
In hardback form, Capital is as heavy as a black cab, its very title – which has already been used by Maureen Duffy for her own London novel – refreshingly immodest. The setting is Pepys Road, a fictional place somewhere in central London where, due to the housing boom lunacy, the properties that were once made for the lower-middle-classes (“the respectable, aspirational no-longer-poor”) are now worth millions of pounds. This is a solid conceit, guaranteeing an automatic cocktail shaker of characters. Eighty-two-year-old Petunia rattles around her £1.5 million house alone, terminally ill and about to make her daughter property-rich. A Muslim family living above a shop can barely afford heating, but across the road a wealthy banker wishing for a million pound bonus lives with an unemployed wife and an entourage of nannies for his spoiled children. Non-residents who nonetheless have many reasons to spend time on Pepys Road include a Zimbabwean traffic warden who vows only to go back to her country when its despotic ruler dies; an urban artist (based on Banksy) called Smitty whose identity is hidden from everyone but his embittered assistant; and Zbigniew, a Polish carpenter who finds himself jammed in an ethical dilemma with a case full of cash.
Capital is a novel in almost entirely discrete segments and many of the characters never have cause to meet. Their parallel lives are tied together by a subplot that starts with mysterious postcards being found on the doormats of every resident. On one side a picture of their house, on the other an ominous message: “We Want What You Have.”
The torment escalates to graffiti and vandalism, but nothing ever feels truly at stake. There is no premonition of 2011’s riots. Nothing slouches towards Brixton to be born. Lanchester is soft on all his characters and the satire never bites. The most enthralling figure (and it’s hard to tell whether this is satire backfiring or part of the plan) is Roger the banker, “a man to whom everything in life had come easily.” To begin with, he is described in the blandest and laziest possible fashion – he is “good-looking” but in “an anonymous way,” with “good manners” and “good fortune.” Taken at face value, he is going to be the least sympathetic character for most readers, which means Lanchester can let rip with stereotypes in a way that would be much more uncomfortable with, for example, a Polish carpenter. You can tell – lazy character sketching aside – that Lanchester relishes the chance to write about the ruthlessly superficial.
Roger is a man who doesn’t appear to do any work all day, but nonetheless expects seven figures for a bonus. In fact, because of his family’s overspending, he needs seven figures. The most entertaining – and tense – set-piece in the book is when Roger is about to discover what his bonus will be for the year.
Roger, who had been feeling cool and even-tempered in his silk knickers, felt his heart rate and blood pressure shoot up. A pound sign followed by a one with six zeroes, one with six zeroes, one with six zeroes. Two with six zeroes? No, that was greedy. One with six zeroes.
His wife, Arabella, is equally fun to be around because she is equally two-dimensional. Obsessed with expensive things, she tries to justify her one-track mind by convincing herself that she hasn’t lost the true value of money. For Arabella, “the knowledge of what money meant gave the drama of high prices a special piquancy.”
Unfortunately most of the book is not about Roger and Arabella, and when we are not in their company the pleasures are scarce. A cynic might say that Capital was rushed for publication to cash in on the Olympic tourists. The cynic, in this case, might be on to something. At times it feels designed for the casual, inattentive reader. Because of the short chapters it feels like the pace is quicker than it really is. Truthfully, Capital is slow going. It was somewhere around chapter 78 – or 67, or 49 – that I realized I no longer cared about what the next vignette had in store. I was simply counting the numbers.
Circumstances are not helped by the suspicion that Lanchester, who showed real literary flair in his debut, has forgotten everything he has ever learned about prose. So, to start the ball rolling, we get the irritating repetition of the word “genuinely” – “a genuinely shitty mood”; “genuinely proud”; “genuinely powerless”; “one of the things Daisy did genuinely love about him” – which after a while begins to sound like an excitable teenager trying to convince you that what they have to say is genuinely important. It is a basic lack of faith on Lanchester’s part. He has to hammer these things deep into our brains. At one point he hypes up the footballing Wunderkind Freddy Kamo by telling us that “there would be a day when everyone in the world with the slightest interest in football, amounting to billions of people, would know that name.” There is something so graceless and hand-holding about that “amounting to billions of people,” as if Lanchester doesn’t trust us to be sufficiently aware of the sport’s popularity. Freddy’s solicitor is “fluent in money,” and later on we discover that the Kamal family is “fluent in irritation.” Why not recycle a phrase or two? Who will notice?
The biggest problem with this novel, though, is its terrible sense of futility. Lanchester has already said everything he can say about the financial crisis in I.O.U., which was a lot shorter and denser than Capital. It was a story of greed and failure that found its way to the heart of the City inside the city, with all the complexity intact. The panoramic novel that has followed feels like the husk trailing the seed. On the shelf, Capital looks promising, bold, satisfyingly baggy. After finishing the book it resembles more of a failed project – well-intentioned but risible, empty, Millennium Dome-esque. We would have been foolish to expect the definitive fictional account of 21st century London, but Lanchester, in muffling the talents he has shown elsewhere, has managed to write a novel that is both amateurish and patronizing.