Book Review: 'Capital,' by John Lanchester

A big-canvas novel that paints the 2008 financial crisis as Balzac or Zola might have
Lanchester provides a kaleidoscopic portrait of London through eight main characters Illustration by Tracy Ma

By John Lanchester
W.W. Norton; 527pp; $27


After a dazzling prologue in which he concisely recounts the history of the South London street where the action of Capital will take place—Pepys Road, whose brick townhouses were built in the late Victorian era for lower-middle-class workers but came to be worth millions apiece as real estate prices went out of whack in the Aughts—John Lanchester jumps into his narrative proper. The page after the prologue reads, simply and ominously, “PART ONE—December 2007.”

With a heading like that and a title like Capital, we know what we’re in for: a novel of the 2008 financial crisis. That is indeed what this book is being marketed as, and, sure enough, one of its central characters is an investment banker who sweats through the 12 harrowing months in which the story unfolds. Capital is the fourth novel by Lanchester, a journalist and restaurant reviewer whose fiction career began in 1996 with The Debt to Pleasure, a brilliantly funny-sick tale told by a sociopathic British food snob, a sort of “Albion Psycho.” We are perfectly set up for a viciously condemnatory chronicle of excess and comeuppance. What Lanchester delivers, though, is something much better: big, bustling social-realist entertainment that, while very much rooted in its place and time, transcends topicality altogether.

The approach is kaleidoscopic, with the narrative of Pepys Road refracted through several different points of view. There are Roger, the yuppie banker, and his congenitally entitled yummy-mummy wife, Arabella, to represent the invasion of City money. There is Petunia, an octogenarian and lifelong resident of the street (her lino-floor kitchen “exactly like time travel to 1958”), holding on against gentrification and mortality. There is Smitty, Petunia’s grandson, a Banksy surrogate (real name: Graham) who has made his mark as a conceptual artist operating in anonymity. And there are immigrants of various backgroundsand circumstances: the Kamals, the bickering but solid Pakistani family that owns the corner newsstand; Zbigniew, a Polish builder who takes on renovation projects for the block’s posher residents; Matya, a foxy young Hungarian nanny in the employ of Roger and Arabella; Freddy, a 17-year-old Senegalese soccer prodigy set up by an English pro football club in one of Pepys Road’s ritzier houses; and Quentina, a highly educated Zimbabwean refugee now prowling the beat as a traffic warden, issuing parking tickets to indignant First-Worlders. If they think this is harassment, they should know what it’s like to be hounded by Robert Mugabe’s death squads.

There is also a mystery afoot. Some anonymous person keeps sending the residents of Pepys Road postcards bearing photographs of their individual houses and the slightly menacing slogan “We Want What You Have.” An Occupy Wall Street-style act of populist agitprop? An obtuse art prank? A developer’s solicitation?

The answer, although eventually revealed, doesn’t finally matter; the mystery is just a binding ingredient for an impressive array of inspired urban-milieu plunges by Lanchester. He gives us exquisitely detailed peeks into various walks of life—like an empathetic version of Google Street View. Among them: the semi-assimilated, unradicalized Islamic existence of the brothers Kamal, the plush but soul-abnegating cloud of unreality upon which Freddy floats, and the schmuck culture of Pinker Lloyd, the boutique bank where Roger works. (Lanchester, also the author of a smart, laity-friendly nonfiction exegesis of the financial meltdown, I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, knows his territory: “Because every trade involved a winner and a loser, making a great deal of money through trading involved being proved repeatedly right, time after time. That had an effect on people who for the most part had not been shy or unconfident in the first place.”) It’s rich and ambitious. John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy comes to mind, as do the heavily populated films of Robert Altman (e.g., Nashville and Short Cuts) and the jumbo novels of Tom Wolfe.

It was Wolfe who, back in 1989, caused a kerfuffle in the literary world by publishing an essay in Harper’s called “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.” In it he lamented the absence of younger writers attempting big-canvas realistic novels of the present “in the sense that Balzac and Zola had written novels of Paris and Dickens and Thackeray had written novels of London, with the city always in the foreground, exerting its relentless pressure on the souls of its inhabitants.” Well, Capital ought to make Wolfe very, very happy.

Or perhaps jealous. The next book Wolfe produced after the Harper’s piece was A Man in Full, his own supremely fun financial-crisis novel, but he worked at such a deliberate pace that by the time his book came out, in 1998, the markets were flush again and the early-’90s recession that had inspired him—the “It’s the economy, stupid” one that cost George H.W. Bush his presidency—had receded into memory. Capital has the good fortune of coming along while we are still slogging through the consequences of 2008—and witnessing such 2008 reduxes as JPMorgan Chase’s 10-digit trading losses. (After you’ve read Capital, Bruno Iksil, the French-born “London Whale,” seems more like a Lanchester invention than a real person.)

Yet Lanchester seems less interested than Wolfe in the hook of ultra-nowness, and more interested in investing his characters with humaneness and heart. While nearly every major character in Capital faces a significant crisis, there are none of the epic humiliations that Wolfe visits upon real estate magnate Charlie Croker in A Man in Full or bond trader Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities. What’s striking is the compassion with which Lanchester treats his characters—not just the hard-luck ones living on the margins of society but also Roger (a shade smarter and more conflicted than the goons with whom he works) and Mickey, an oleaginous football club executive whose job it is to shepherd young Freddy to sports stardom. Even the character who comes closest to Cruella de Vil caricature, the unrelentingly consumerist Arabella, is given a kind of mitigating silly-woman graciousness: “When the delivery men carried boxes of groceries into the house, Arabella would tell them, ‘You’re an angel,’ and in such a way that it seemed she really meant it—as, indeed, in a small way, she did.”

We readers are aware, as Capital’s version of 2008 progresses, that the Lehman Brothers collapse is on the horizon and that these people have it coming. But when the darkness finally descends, it happens the way it actually would happen—did happen—and minus Brian De Palma-ready klieg lights and pyrotechnics. Lanchester’s is a realer form of realism than Wolfe’s.

Capital is a big book that’s not a Big Statement book. Yes, it has something resembling a timely, topical theme—that we’re all out there hustling for a better life, and the hustle has gotten harder—but it is, above all, in the most un-boring, un-clichéd sense of the term, a winning examination of the human condition.

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