Capital, by John Lanchester

Purchased from the Book Depository

John Lanchester has been an author who has had my attention since his oustanding 1996 debut, The Debt To Pleasure, a novel that seemed to be about cuisine for its first half (and that was fine) and then became increasingly dark as its main character came into full focus. I’ve read both his next two novels — Mr Phillips and Fragrant Harbor — and while they weren’t up to his first one, they were entertaining enough.

I also know Lanchester through his journalism, most recently his regular contributions to the London Review of Books on the financial crisis, also collected as a book, Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (the “Whoops!” in that title is replaced with “I.O.U.” in editions published outside the U.K). His financial analysis is general not academic — but it was refreshing to see an author whom I knew as a novelist pay serious attention to the business world and the articles that I read were more than worthwhile.

So the premise of his latest novel, Capital, was attractive from the start. Set in London, opening in late 2007 and continuing through the height of the crisis, with a City of London banker at its centre, I had hopes that this was going to be one of those “inside corrupt finance” fiction works that strike a very responsive chord with this reader.

For the first 200 pages, Capital delivered on that premise in spades. It is a “widescreen” novel, featuring a number of different story lines, each with its own central character, that continue throughout the book. Lanchester introduces these characters and their stories with a satirical overtone (both for the people and their circumstances) that had me constantly chuckling and nodding in agreement with his pungent observations.

One aspect of Capital is definitely not “widescreen”. All of the stories and characters in some way are connected with dwellings on a single block of Pepys Road in South London, three-storey homes constructed in the late nineteenth century. They were “built for a specific market: the idea was that they would appeal to lower-middle-class families willing to live in an unfashionable part of town in return for the chance to own a terraced house — a house large enough to have room for servants.”

The ensuing century has been more than economically kind to Pepys Road (and central London in general). While there have been some stumbles along the way, the block has become steadily more fashionable, the homes upgraded. First the attics and more recently the basements at about £100,000 a pop: “…that also added at least that much to the value of the house, so looked at from a certain point of view — and because many of the new residents worked in the City of London, this was a popular point of view — the basement conversions were free.” That’s a pretty accurate summary of the Western Hemisphere housing market, not just Pepys Road, in the heady days prior to 2007 and the kind of trenchant aside that can be found on almost every one of those first 200 pages.

Before leaving Pepys Road, though, let’s quote Lanchester’s description of its current status:

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 on 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.

Let’s take a look at the banker I mentioned earlier, who actually is not the central character of the novel but certainly one of the ensemble that populates the book:

The proprietor of 51 Pepys Road, the house across the road from Petunia Howe’s [we'll get to her in a moment], was at his office desk at his bank, Pinker Lloyd, doing sums. He was trying to work out if his bonus that year would come to a million pounds.

At forty, Roger was a man to whom everything in life had come easily. He was six foot three, just short enough to feel no need to conceal his height by stooping — so that even his tallness appeared a form of ease, as if gravity had, when he was growing up, exerted less effect on him than on more ordinary people…. He had been to a good school (Harrow) and a good university (Durham) and got a good job (in the City of London) and been perfect in his timing (just after the Big Bang, just before the City became infatuated by the mathematically gifted and/or barrow boys). He would have fitted seamlessly in the old City of London, where people came in late and left early and had a good lunch in between, and where everything depended on who you were and whom you knew and how well you blended in, and the greatest honour was to be one of us and to “play well with others” but he fit in very well in the new City too, where everything was supposedly meritocratic, where the ideology was to work hard, play hard, and take no prisoners; to be in the office from seven to seven, minimum, and where nobody cared what your accent was or where you came from as long as you showed you were up for it and made money for your employer.”

Roger’s problem with his bonus calculation is not just that he is hoping for £1,000,000, he needs to get it. His wife, Arabella, refers to his £150,000 salary as “frock money” — it doesn’t even cover the mortgage payments on the Pepys Road house and the Yount’s country “cottage” — so they live off the annual bonus. When you add up the regular costs — continuous redocoration at both properties, regular new furniture acquisitions, a nanny, Arabella’s constant spending, expensive vacations, etc. — a million would just about get Roger to even for the year. It’s no spoiler to say he doesn’t get that much — you’ll have to read the book to find out how bad the shortfall is.

Petunia Howe, mentioned in the quote earlier, lives across the street at Number 42 — the last person to have been born in the street and still resident there. In fact, her grandfather had bought Number 42 “off the plan” before it was even built back in the late 1800s. Petunia’s grandfather, father and husband were all barrister’s clerks in Lincoln’s Inn, the job passed on one to the other when nepotism still ruled at all levels. Her husband died five years ago and Petunia herself is approaching the end of her days — still, both her memories and current experience on Pepys Road are important to the continuity of the various story lines.

Modern London is a diverse city and that too has come to Pepys Road. The shop at the end of the road, number 68, is owned by Ahmed Kamal and the upper floor is home to his wife and two children. It’s one of those family corner store operations that can be found in any modern city — Ahmed’s brothers Usman (a fervent Muslim who hides the alcohol and men’s magazines on sale in the store when he is working there) and Shahid (who has questionable political connections from a trip to Chechnya in his teens) both take regular shifts at the shop.

Grant me leave to introduce one more character, “the most unpopular woman in Pepys Road”. Her name is “Quentina Mkfesi BSc, MSc, University of Zimbabwe, thesis subjet: Post-Conflict Resolution in Non-Post-Colonial Societies, with special reference to Northern Ireland, Spain and Chile”. Her application for refugee status in the UK has been rejected, she’s currently living in a charity-sponsored holding house awaiting her appeal and has obtained illegal employment under another name out of boredom. The reason she is the most unpopular woman on the street is that she is a parking warden…

…on the lookout for non-residents parked in the residents’ parking area, for business permit-holders parked in residents’ areas and vice versa, for expired permits of both types, for people who had overstayed their paid parking or — and this was a particularly fruitful issue in Pepys Road — for people who had misinterpreted the parking signs and paid for parking but were not parked in the dual-use, residents’ or paid-parking area, but were instead parked in the residents-only parking area.

Quentina is conscientious and always meets her quota (“of course, there was a quota”) of 20 tickets a day — she also has the lowest level of upheld appeals of her tickets by any of the current employees of the private company that has the parking control contract. Quentina and four other African employees of the firm have a daily contest to maintain their interest: whoever tickets the most expensive car each day earns a free beer from the others. In the chapter where she is introduced, she is confident of a win: She tickets an Aston Martin DB7, “a James Bond car with an on-the-road price of £150,000, parked in the residents-only area, not the residents-and-visitors area. He had made the classic Pepys Road mistake.”

It is not just the houses and people of Pepys Road who populate this novel, however. In its opening pages, all of the residents start receiving photos dropped through their letter box with the label (warning?): We Want What You Have. The prank, escapade, threat, whatever it is, grows (DVDs, graffiti, vandalism) and will become one of the threads that unifies the stories of the block.

This is a long review already and I haven’t even introduced all the story lines — trust me, there are a number more (a 17-year-old Sengalese football player newly-signed to a Premiership contract and a graffiti/installation artist, just to name two). And that’s just in the first 200 pages of Capital.

Which is a fair way of introducing the problems I had with the novel, because my copy of Capital is 577 pages long. As entertaining as those pages were, they do tend to be somewhat slight (which is a big part of the charm) and Lanchester tries to make his novel more “weighty” in each of the story threads as it moves along. Alas, he is much less successful at that — the middle third of the novel involves a fair bit of wheel-spinning with some not very interesting, obvious plot developments (you can predict a number of them off my thumbnail descriptions, I am sure — you certainly will if you read the book).

To his credit, the author recovers in the final third. It becomes a bit tidy, I admit (a frequent problem with “widescreen” novels and one that I can overlook), but the fractured humanity of the characters and their circumstances reasserts itself. Just to illustrate how that issue played out with me, I read the first 200 pages in one sitting, took four days of somewhat grumpy reading for the next 200 and finished off the last 180 in another single reading session.

The final result? Capital won’t be the best book that I will read this year, but some of the set pieces in it (Roger and his bonus, Quentina and her “route”) will be among the best. A tad long at 577 pages, but an entertaining read nonetheless — if you get frustrated in the middle, make sure you press on. I have the feeling that a few months down the road I’ll still be remembering the beginning and ending and conveniently forgetting the middle.

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26 Responses to “Capital, by John Lanchester”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    Sounds right up my street, Kevin. As you know I have a weakness for these boom novels and the fallout hasn’t stopped yet. Plus I enjoy these hefty novels. Amazon has it as both OOP and preorder with a two star rating.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: If I gave stars, I would give it four. I can understand why some would rate it much lower — novels about rich people getting caught out are not to everyone’s taste. It also helps that I know a bit about the commercial aspect of London, so that had appeal.

    I don’t know if you order from the BD but it shows up on my form at 45 per cent off ($21.42 Canadian including shipping) which isn’t bad for a hefty hardcover, although I know the BD prices differently by country.

  3. Slightly Bookist Says:

    Great review. I hadn’t noticed that Capital was a novel, despite knowing that Whoops came out of research for a novel. Even with the problems it still sounds like one I will enjoy.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I was hoping that Lanchester would take his LRB financial meltdown experience and incorporate it in a novel — although I should note that most of the story lines in the novel aren’t directly related to the City or its abuses (although all are certainly part of the times that produced them). I haven’t read Whoops, although Mrs. KfC has — unfortunately, she hasn’t read the novel so neither of us are available for comparisons.

  4. Guy Savage Says:

    Sorry for thickness but what is BD?

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sorry — it is the Book Depository and they are my source of UK books not available in North America. They ship free and prices are very competitive, even on some volumes that are available here. If you click on the cover in the review, it should take you to the page for Capital.

    • Guy Savage Says:

      Thanks. It says “currently unavailable.” You must have bought the last copy, but I see other copies elsewhere, so no worries

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        That’s a problem with the BD since they opened U.S. distribution centres — they show titles as unavailable when U.S. publication is scheduled later. I haven’t checked recently but a few months ago there was a way around it — go to AbeBooks and then select the BD option for the title there.

  6. David Says:

    My problem with this book, Kevin, is highlighted by your listing of the various characters: they’re all so predictable (and in fact some reviews have pointed out how similar the cast list is to that of Sebastian Faulks’ ‘A Week in December’) and as you point out, a lot of the plot developments are very obvious. I know that is probably inevitable for a ‘state of the nation’ novel (narrow view of the nation though it takes), but I never felt like I was reading anything new – all of the stories, all of Lanchester’s observations, I could have read any day in the newspaper over the last few years, and I was left wondering what the point of writing the book was. I want a novel to do more than tell me things I already know. Still, I think this will work very well as a time capsule book – one to read in ten or twenty years time to remind yourself just what things were like in 2007/2008. And it is a very entertaining read – even given its length I managed to whip through it in three days.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: My response to the novel obviously falls more to the “entertaining” than “state of the nation” side. When I thought Lanchester was succeeding, it wasn’t because of the big picture or even the event that he was portraying, but in the details along the way (e.g. the list of parking offences that Quentina enforces). Having read the book, you will be aware that my review deliberately avoids going into the plot “developments” that occupy much of the second third of the book — I did find them rather obvious and even a brief mention of what they might be I suspect would be a spoiler. It was when the author was paying too much attention to them that I found my attention straying (and looked for something else to do).

    It is true that the novel didn’t tell me much I didn’t know about the financial collapse in London — or even aspects of the city around it –but I did find the cast of characters an engaging bunch and for the most part thought Lanchester used their experiences to good advantage.

    I’d agree for sure that down the road, if this is still being read, it will be regarded as a “time capsule” book not a great book. My comparisons, given my age, would probably be what the Angry Young Men playwrights or Alan Silitoe’s early novels did to the 1950s. It’s too early to say whether this has the legs to last that long though.

  8. kimbofo Says:

    I saw Lanchester interviewed on the Sky Arts Book Show last week (it’s only taken us a decade but we’ve finally succumbed to satellite TV so the Other Half can have the dedicated F1 channel and I can have Sky Atlantic and Sky Arts). He said he’d been writing the book off and on for a decade — and long before the Financial Crisis happened. The interviewer didn’t follow up on this, but obviously, if he was writing it before the credit crunch it makes you wonder how different the book might have been had the crunch not happened. What, for instance, was his originally purpose in writing it?

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: Thanks for that comment — it offers some food for thought.

    My speculation would be that he was initially working with a concept of character sketches of those living in modern London. After all, immigrant corner store owners and traffic wardens (and flashy young imported Premiership players) were around long before the financial crisis. And I’d suggest the “state of the nation” concept that David mentions in his earlier comment could be further refined to “state of the city” as the over-arching theme of the book.

    The financial crisis supplied a contemporary “glue” to hold all this together — in fact, Roger’s story is the only one directly affected by it, but let’s face it some broad crisis/opportunity is always moving aspects of London life along.

    I’m hoping you’ll find the time to take this one on later in the year, as an imported Londoner yourself. I found when I was reading it that I was making comparisons with aspects of Get Me Out of Here in the satirical bits and I know you loved that book.

  10. kimbofo Says:

    I’ll probably wait for the paperback version to come out — and the hype to die down a little. Interesting that you said it reminded you a little of Get Me Out of Here. I’m reading Michael Dibden’s Dirty Tricks at the moment, which was written in 1991, but the narrator, who is as nasty as they come, reminds me of Matt in Get Me Out of Here. A murder, or two, is involved. :-)

    Oh, and re: the traffic warden. Lancester said he is fascinated by traffic wardens because they are invisible and yet to hated.

    • Guy Savage Says:

      If it reminds you of Get Me Out of Here, it’s something I should read

      • kimbofo Says:

        Oh yes, Guy, you *must* read this one. Honestly, the narrator here is worse than Matt! I laughed a lot while reading this one and read passages out loud to my Other Half because I just had to share the hilarity and absurdity with someone else. I’ve just reviewed it on the blog if you want to take a look.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: Lancester should consult with Mrs. KfC on the traffic warden front — she gets enough tickets that the electronic payment site is included on her internet favorites menu. And she loathes the “wardens” who drive the trucks with cameras mounted everywhere which are the modern version here of the traditional traffic warden.

    Also, I’d suggest Lanchester uses the financial crisis (and some of the others that I haven’t mentioned) in the same way Henry Sutton uses his murders. For me, the real interest in both books was in the descriptive ornaments hanging off the tree of the plot.

  12. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Dirty Tricks is quite fun. I think you’d like it Guy.

    That diversion aside, I’ve read Lanchester’s LRB articles and he’s one of the very few writers I’ve encountered who actually get it from my perspective. He understands the City, which few writers do (I should read Alex Preston in that light, as an ex-trader gone the literary rather than thriller route I have high hopes, plus I’ve met him and he’s a nice chap).

    At about halfway through the review I found myself getting slightly fatigued, and that’s not a criticism, because I read it as telling me something about the book. Some books have so much going on one can’t help but write a lot, but in doing so one reveals what may be an issue with the book (and here is) – that there’s just too much going on.

    Widescreen necessarily tends to imply breadth over depth, but there does come a point of diminishing returns. This goes on the firm maybe pile for me. It’s Lanchester and he knows his stuff, I quite enjoy this sort of novel and I am a Londoner, but being right now stuck in a novel that’s longer and has more elements than I absolutely care for I’m a little gunshy. Teju Cole is calling, and I finally succumbed and bought A Sense of an Ending which I’m hoping will be an effective palate cleanser once I finish my current ill-judged sf novel (ill-judged because it was the wrong time to read it, not through inherent fault of its own).

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I do think you will find this worthwhile when you are in the mood — but agree that the wait is essential. There are a lot of characters, which does mean a lot of stories, but Lanchester does deliver (or did for me) on virtually all of them. I don’t think the novel adds a lot to my insight of contemporary London, but it did do a very good job of portraying some of the kinds of people who make it tick. A couple of weeks on I do find that the good parts are growing in memory, which is always a good sign.

  14. leroyhunter Says:

    I’ve read 2 by Lanchester, Whoops! and The Debt to Pleasure, each of which in different ways I thought were excellent. But I think almost since I got a first inkling of this book, specifically the scope / breadth that Max refers to, I decided it wasn’t for me. Much like Franzen, who I repsect as a writer, and whose shorter work (typically essays) I have enjoyed, I find myself wondering if I want to read quite so *much* of Lanchester. Your highlighting the “sag” in the middle of Capital confirms my reluctance, Kevin. Pith! Acerbity! That’s the stuff to give the troops.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: We were up at Lake Louise for three days this week and Mrs. KfC whizzed through Capital with an evening to spare — and she did not feel that it sagged in the middle. I suspect that that kind of “holiday” reading might be the best environment for the novel — the characters and their stories probably have more focus to them when there are not a lot of distractions around. As for “type”, I’d say the Franzen comparison is probably a fair one.

  16. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The tip on how to read it is useful. I can see it might make a better holiday read and coud fare terribly as a commute read.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I think it is just too bulky (and perhaps structurally slight) to serve as a commute read. You know London much better than I do but I did appreciate the way that Lanchester contrasted the City and his chosen street. In the final analysis, though, that was good background — the best parts of the book were his oddball characters, all of whom I came to quite like. That is why I also think it makes for a very good holiday read — on a purely practical note, the chapters are quite short so it can be put down when other tasks beckon.

  18. Craig D. Says:

    I love the cover art. Looks like a Shel Silverstein drawing, and it nicely suggests the idea of cities being worlds unto themselves.

    I’m always leery of these “widescreen” novels with so many characters and subplots going on at once. It’s hard enough to pull off in less than 300 pages, but novels are already so self-indulgent these days (seriously, what the hell ever happened to editors?) that anything longer than 400 is already struggling to convince me to bother with it.

    Philip K. Dick pulls off the widescreen novel beautifully in about 250 pages with “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” It’s a shining example that authors setting out to do the same thing should be required by law to read beforehand.

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Craig: While I usually find multi-character, multi-stream narratives share a weakness (that some of the characters just are not interesting enough), Lanchester avoids that stumble here. I think the novel is worth its lengh — the bits that slowed somewhat for me were when he seemed to want to pay more attentnion to signifigance than character.

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