March 26 (Bloomberg) -- A London banker with silk underpants who risks going broke if his bonus is less than 1 million pounds. An artist named Smitty who thrives on anonymous graffiti and stunts. Pakistani shopkeepers, a Polish builder, and a gangly Senegalese soccer star.
These are just a few denizens of Pepys Road, the locus of John Lanchester’s “Capital,” a fat and funny social novel about London during the financial meltdown of 2007 and 2008.
Lanchester is the comic author who brought us a mischievous primer on the crisis, “I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay.” As his new book opens, it’s early December 2007 and mortgage losses combined with troubles at a Swiss subsidiary threaten to spoil the bonus party for Roger Yount, the Harrow-educated head of foreign-exchange trading at investment bank Pinker Lloyd.
This spells more than disappointment for Roger. It portends disaster because he and his golden-skinned airhead of a wife, Arabella -- she who nurses “a deep and sincere love of treats” -- bleed money on houses, school fees, nannies and the odd private jet rental.
Roger needs a cash infusion, fast. Worse still, a nemesis lurks in the wings: His sallow deputy, Mark, has a superior grasp on math and is taking an unhealthy interest in his boss’s personal life.
Then a postcard bearing a photo of the Younts’ front door lands in their letterbox with a creepy message: “We Want What You Have.”
The setup allows Lanchester to mock the banking gentry and its pretentions -- the Damien Hirst spot paintings, bespoke kitchens from Smallbone of Devizes, wet rooms and snit fits. “Arabella was good at making life seem easy, except when she suddenly and dramatically wasn’t,” the banker reflects.
All jolly good entertainment, with one hitch: Roger and Arabella are drawn with such a sharp satirical edge that they jut out from the crowd of more realistic characters in the book, like a pair of rich twits who wandered in from another novel.
The oldest person on Pepys Road is 82-year-old Petunia Howe, who remembers the night when a V-2 rocket crashed into the street 10 doors down. The new kid on the block is 17-year-old Freddy Kamo, a soccer wunderkind who grew up in a shack in Senegal and is now earning 20,000 pounds a week playing pro.
Brothers in Religion
At the shop on the end of the street live the Kamals, a Muslim family united by love, achari gosht and annoyance: “All the Kamals were fluent in irritation.”
One of the Kamal brothers blew a chance to study physics at Cambridge and scampered off to aid his Chechen “brothers in religion,” a past that catches up with him when a fellow idealist from Brussels arrives.
Slipping in and out of the street is Zbigniew Tomascewski, a Polish construction worker with a strong utilitarian streak.
And then there’s the most feared woman on the road: Quentina Mkfesi, a Zimbabwean traffic warden whose quota obliges her to issue 20 parking tickets a day.
Each of these characters represents a socioeconomic trend, of course. We get the post-9/11 and 7/7 paranoia about terrorist sleepers in the Islamic community. We see the influx of East European workers.
We’re confronted, too, with an aging English population, asylum seekers and the piles of money shoveled at bankers, soccer players and edgy artists during the Cool Britannia years of Tony Blair.
Placing the multiple protagonists on one street was a clever move, tying their stories together without implausibly Dickensian coincidences. Zbigniew arrives at the Younts’ place to do a painting job; Smitty pops into the house across the road to see his grandmother.
The locale whisks us into London’s property gold rush, too: “Having a house in Pepys Road was like being in a casino in which you were guaranteed to be a winner.”
The only serious spoiler, for me, was Roger. Arabella, bless her brainless soul, works as comic relief. Roger, by contrast, is supposed to represent the tumult that washed over banks during the great credit squeeze.
Though some scenes at Pinker Lloyd work well -- Roger’s white-noise machine is a nice touch -- he has too little drive and too little contact with his traders to capture the vibe during the run on Northern Rock Plc and the collapses of Bear Stearns Cos. and Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.
In the end, we’re left with a 577-page novel about London during the crisis in which the crisis is incidental. But perhaps that is Lanchester’s point: Life goes on, prices rise and fall, homeowners come and go. Yet London remains London.
“Capital” is published by Faber in the U.K. (577 pages, 17.99 pounds). In the U.S., it will be available from Norton in June. To preorder this book in North America, click here.
(James Pressley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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