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.