Capital: A Novel

When the credit markets started seizing up in 2007, we bookish folks realized something sobering: most of us knew next to nothing about the system that was about to cause the worst economic cataclysm of our lives. Thankfully there was John Lanchester to help us. The British writer, whose polished memoir Family Romance dealt in part with his banker father, began writing a series of long, extremely persuasive essays in the London Review of Books on the opacity of derivatives and the absurd housing bubble that, he predicted, would precipitate global disaster. It was so obvious that even a novelist could see it coming.

Lanchester collected and reworked those essays for his book I.O.U., and now they have a fictional counterpart. Capital is a giant montage of London during the run-up to the crash, that strange, foreboding moment when the city seemed in perpetual boom. It is, in many ways, a book that could only have been written in London. This is a city whose financial services industry accounts for one-fifth of its GDP and where the real estate market was so overheated that you would — like a not unsympathetic character in this book — put your own mother’s house on the market while she lay dying in the upstairs bedroom.

It opens, promisingly, with an astonishing set piece: an economic history of one street told not through its residents but the houses they live in. The fictional Pepys Road, which Lanchester indicates lies somewhere near Clapham Common south of the Thames, comprises two rows of homes built in the nineteenth century for “the respectable, aspirational no-longer-poor,” part of a boomlet after the government eliminated a tax on brick. Servants’ quarters are converted to family bedrooms. Houses blasted during the war are turned into a corner store. By the 1970s the street’s working-class residents have cashed in and sold to wealthier arrivals, who start renovating their lofts, then their basements – and since the hundreds of thousands of pounds in cost increased the value of the house by just as much, “the basement conversions were free.” Now they gobble up deliveries from the wine shop and the dry cleaners, and on any day two or three of them are being redecorated or improved. And by 2007, when Capital opens, the street’s inhabitants are for the very first time all rich – rich simply by dint of living there, because “all of the houses of Pepys Road, as if by magic, were now worth millions of pounds.”

So on paper everyone in Pepys Road is a millionaire. But the only City boy among them is Roger Yount, a not very bright old Harrovian who made his fortune only through good timing – he got in after Thatcher’s liberalization of the markets but before the math Ph.D.s and Essex wide boys took over the shop. Roger works in foreign exchange at a midsize investment bank, and he is truly rich, not just in assets but in income. But he doesn’t feel rich. Life in London is expensive – and things aren’t helped when you’re married to Arabella, a shallow and spectacularly unlikable woman who thinks Roger’s high-six-figure payouts make them only “typical London struggling well-off.” (For reference: the median British income is about £20,000 a year.) Roger spends most of his days hoping the bank’s compensation committee, known to all as “the Politburo,” will award him the million-pound bonus he knows he merits – and, more worryingly, needs. What with the mortgage and the renovations, plus travel and private education for two children and a live-in nanny and the £150,000 his wife calls “frock money,” Roger worries that without a million-pound bonus “he was at genuine risk of going broke.”

Roger is a London archetype: the prosperous and slightly stupid banker who believes, with the conviction of an old-style Calvinist, that his money is a reflection of some inner goodness or election. And the dozen or so other characters in Capital feel a bit archetypical as well. We meet Zbigniew the Polish builder, whose meager savings is all in stocks he manages with his day-trading account; the Kamals, who own the corner store and have an eye for property and differing views on political Islam; Smitty, the untalented but hugely successful street artist and media provocateur; and Freddy, the lanky Senegalese striker for a Premier League soccer team. The most engaging figure among them is perhaps Quentina, the brainy Zimbabwean political refugee working illegally as a meter maid — “the most unpopular woman in Pepys Road,” who snaps photos of ticketed Aston Martins on her cameraphone. (As befits a London novel, the hellishness of parking is a leitmotif in Capital; so too is the congestion charge, the fee for driving into central London that makes one character so apoplectic he refuses to pay it even when seeing a lawyer after his relative is arrested.)

We follow these Londoners’ love lives and ambitions and family ructions over a year in which the British economy finally tanks. But you would not know, reading Capital, that its author once won comparisons to Nabokov for the complex, hilarious character study of his first novel, The Debt to Pleasure, about a fastidious epicurean who also happens to be a homicidal maniac. While the good people of Pepys Road may capture in aggregate the transformed nature of postcolonial, post-EU-integration London, they don’t really hold your attention individually: they’re not only schematic but a bit interchangeable as well. And where The Debt to Pleasure reveled in sensuous description, Capital is larded with colloquialisms and infelicities — “And this was one of the things,” “Well whoop de flipping doo,” “That was the main thing wrong with her” — that give it the feel of a rush job.

The situation isn’t helped by a clumsy whodunit subplot: everyone on Pepys Road has been receiving anonymous postcards, featuring a photo of their front doors and the caption “We Want What You Have,” and nobody can figure out where they’re coming from or what it means. A little later, they start receiving DVDs showing long, uninterrupted takes of their front doors. Lanchester here seems to be adapting the theme of Michael Haneke’s 2005 film Caché, in which a family received written threats and surveillance tapes but never finds out who they’re from. But on the last pages of Capital he ends up revealing the culprits, and the effect is not just anticlimactic. It’s also a wounding distraction from what should have our attention: the crash, and the lives it will soon upend.

Capital weighs in at over 500 pages, and a book this long, with a title cribbed from Karl Marx, arrives overburdened with the expectation that it will be the financial crisis novel we’ve all, apparently, been waiting for. It’s probably best, instead, to stick with Lanchester’s journalism to understand the disturbances we are still enduring five years on, and to think of Capital as something else: an X-ray of a transformed city, one that a few years ago seemed the most dynamic in the West but now looks set for decades of Japanese-style stagnation. And that need not be seen as a diminution of scale. As Lanchester must surely realize, anyone writing about contemporary London is already writing a financial crisis novel by default.