“Capital” by John Lanchester Explores London in the Financial Crisis

Paul Herrmann / REA-Redux

John Lanchester’s new novel, Capital, is a restless, expansive study of life in a London teetering between the excesses of 2007 and the crash of 2008. Its 107 chapters are populated by a sprawling cast of characters, including a banker named Roger, who leaves for work in the city wearing “soft, lush, Savile Row shirts”; his wife in her luxury frocks; a Polish builder in his paint-spattered overalls; a Zimbabwean traffic warden proud of her crisp uniform; a Pakistani newsagent keeping warm in his fingerless gloves; and even a newly arrived Senegalese footballer ready to slip into his fresh Premiership kit for a few million.

On a recent afternoon, Lanchester himself looks part of the cast: a writer caught in unexpected spring sunshine with a few of his shirt buttons undone. We wander from the shops to find a bench in Clapham Common, which makes a cameo in the book. On shimmering days like this one “huge numbers of young people would remove as much of their clothing as was legally possible and sprawl on the grass drinking alcohol,” Lanchester writes. “The sprawlers looked like yobs and proles, but Roger knew that appearances were deceptive; just because they had their kit off and were getting drunk didn’t mean that they weren’t web designers, secretaries, nurses, software engineers, chefs. It was a rule of London life that anybody could be anybody.” Surveying the sight, Lanchester says: “It looks like the Copacabana today.”

With Capital, his fourth novel, Lanchester was interested in a double microcosm: London as a microcosm of the world, and a single street as a microcosm of London. The setting Lanchester creates is Pepys Road, which by the first decade of the new century has become less a street and more of a collection of entities that need tending to. Originally built for lower-middle-class families, the houses on Pepys Road have become active, accruing wealth as old residents are replaced by new. The ur-Londoners, as Lanchester calls them, give way to individuals like Roger and his wife, who see their renovated house as part of a fragrant, entitled lifestyle that can be maintained—high thread count and all—as long as the bonus envelope delivers good news each year, often to the sound of a million pounds. “The houses,” Lanchester writes, “were now like people, and rich people at that, imperious, with needs of their own that they were not shy about being serviced.”

To understand property is to understand London. “Someone once asked me if I was really interested in property,” Lanchester says when we’re sitting on the bench. “I found myself swelling with indignation. It doesn’t interest me one bit but it is of consuming interest to everyone around. From the writer’s point of view, you have to be interested because it’s such a driver, the absolute central motor of everything. The Brits like it because it’s a metonymy—it’s the only time they directly talk about money.”

As the London streets get richer, the bonds between neighbors fail to form. People begin to live parallel lives. Lanchester himself has lived in the same house in South London for 16 years but has never stepped inside his neighbor’s home. “I was interested in lives that barely touch,” he says. “The politicians use this phrase, ‘We’re all in it together.’ But that is a very precise description of what London is not.” On Pepys Road, the disparate residents are eventually drawn together by another slogan, albeit with a more menacing tone. “We Want What You Have” is printed on postcards that begin to show up at the different houses on the street, dropped by an unseen hand. Fans of police procedurals will soon notice Lanchester is less interested in postal harassment than the silt it stirs and the range of responses it yields, especially in a city steeped in inequality, frightened by an existential terrorist threat and, in 2008, about to experience a sharp financial surprise, with plenty of repercussions in the homes of the Haves in places like Pepys Road.

Lanchester himself is a little like London: there is a restless propulsion to his body of work. From the epicurean black comedy of The Debt to Pleasure to his memoir, Family Romance to I.O.U., his nonfiction exploration of the financial crash, he’s demonstrated a continued aversion to writing variations on a single book. “The bit of me that writes each book is used up,” he says when I ask him if he could ever return to the first-person narrative of his debut. “That bit of self isn’t there any more. I like the sensation of freshness when approaching a book.”

There is a freshness to Capital that is not found in other recent attempts at the London novel. Sebastian Faulks’s A Week in December featured a similar cast of financiers and conflicted London Muslims but also included long stretches of undigested financial research. “I’m a bit wary of formal structured research,’ Lanchester says, “because the great danger is that you use it. I put a lot of the research for Capital into Whoops. I did it deliberately to quarantine. Otherwise I would have characters explaining.”

Capital is never ill-served by its research; space is cleared for observations from one of London’s great living writers, which to say there is much pleasure in the sections of the book, especially the prologue, where Lanchester simply explains the logic of life in London, a city that often defies the reach of novels. Lanchester admits even he cannot tap into the city’s coincidences, symmetries, and unbelievable tales. “The thing you can’t do in fiction is unlikeliness,” he explains. “In a novel it has to feel true. London’s full of things that don’t feel true but just happen to be true.” But there is a reward for Lanchester in continued fidelity to the construction that comes with writing fiction. “I think of it as making a thing. I don’t mind. It would be like minding having to put a fourth leg on the table when you’ve already done three.”

capitial-lanchester-book-cover ‘Capital: A Novel’ By John Lanchester. 528 p. W. W. Norton. $26.95.

If Capital cannot embody the randomness of London, it does offer up a beautifully wrought structure instead. Readers receive what the many shards of city life can’t give: the finality of good fiction, shaped by one of the best, with an ending that combines equal parts resignation and hope. Lanchester is able to show the fickle city, the duplicity of money, and finally, the resilience of family, even in a place like this, even after 2008. “The sources of value in people’s lives,” he says, “aren’t quite where they think they were.”

After he walks home in the sunshine, the high street fills with yet more parallel London lives. As if to demonstrate the importance placed by Lanchester on the short, provocative phrase, the last resident of the capital I see before heading underground is a man wearing a red T-shirt with a message printed on the front. It’s 2012, so the slogan is not “We Want What You Have.” Instead, underneath an image Karl Marx’s face, are the words: “I Told You So.”