Capital

( 7 )

Overview

From the best-selling author of The Debt to Pleasure, a sweeping social novel set at the height of the financial crisis.

Celebrated novelist John
Lanchester (“an elegant and wonderfully witty writer”—New York Times) returns with an epic novel that captures the obsessions of our time. It’s 2008 and things are falling apart: Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers are going under, and the residents of Pepys Road, London—a banker and his shopaholic wife,...

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Capital

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Overview

From the best-selling author of The Debt to Pleasure, a sweeping social novel set at the height of the financial crisis.

Celebrated novelist John
Lanchester (“an elegant and wonderfully witty writer”—New York Times) returns with an epic novel that captures the obsessions of our time. It’s 2008 and things are falling apart: Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers are going under, and the residents of Pepys Road, London—a banker and his shopaholic wife, an old woman dying of a brain tumor and her graffiti-artist grandson, Pakistani shop owners and a shadowy refugee who works as the meter maid, the young soccer star from Senegal and his minder—are receiving anonymous postcards reading “We Want What You Have.” Who is behind it? What do they want? Epic in scope yet intimate, capturing the ordinary dramas of very different lives, this is a novel of love and suspicion, of financial collapse and terrorist threat, of property values going up and fortunes going down, and of a city at a moment of extraordinary tension.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Lanchester (The Debt to Pleasure) follows on the heels of 2010’s I.O.U., a nonfiction dissection of the great recession, by covering much of the same territory in this barely allegorical study of class conflict and reversal of fortune. The affluent residents of London’s Pepys Road suburb are a handy cross-section of late-2007 types: Roger Yount, a banker riding high and counting on his bonus to cover mortgages and the needs of his spoiled wife; Shahid, the son of Pakistani immigrants working the family shop; the 17-year old soccer prodigy Freddy Kamo; Quentina Mkfesi, an educated Zimbabwean refugee turned traffic warden; the elderly Petunia Howe, living repository of Pepys Road’s postwar rise; and Petunia’s grandson, a Banksy-type artist named Smitty. This is just a sample of the cast, most of whom begin receiving mysterious cards reading “We Want What You Have.” Like clockwork, the quality of life on Pepys Road goes south, with arrests, injuries, illnesses, and financial undoing. But it’s hard to care, with predictable and seldom insightful plot threads, and Lanchester reducing his characters to their socio-economic parameters as surely as the market itself. The result is an obsequious, transparent attempt at an epochal “financial crash” novel that is as thin as a 20-dollar bill. Agent: Caradoc King, AP Watt. (June)
Booklist
An exceptionally capacious and involving tale about disparate lives in turmoil on London’s Pepys Road…. Lanchester makes us care deeply about his imperiled characters and their struggles, traumatic and ludicrous, as he astutely illuminates the paradoxes embedded in generosity and greed, age and illness, financial crime and religious fanaticism, immigration, exile, and terror. A remarkably vibrant and engrossing novel about what we truly value.— Donna Seaman
Observer (UK)
“Effortlessly brilliant—gripping for its entire duration, hugely moving and outrageously funny.”
Bookpage
“As enrapturing as it is psychologically acute… Capital portrays an authentic slice of contemporary life on the eve of change in a way that recalls Franzen—with a welcome touch of wry humor.”
Times on Sunday (UK)
“Brimming with perception, humane empathy and relish, its portrayal of this metropolitan miscellany is, in every sense, a capital achievement.”
Evening Standard (UK)
“It is Lanchester’s gifts for observation and description that make Capital such a riveting read. It is a novel in which every few chapters a sentence will provoke an "I wish I had said that" reaction or, when it is a familiar thought, an: "I wish I had said that so well." … Above all, Lanchester should be applauded for a novel that is as readable as it is clever. He never attempts to prove his own intelligence, yet it oozes from every page.”
The Guardian (UK)
“The book John Lanchester was born to write.”
Donna Seaman - Booklist
“An exceptionally capacious and involving tale about disparate lives in turmoil on London’s Pepys Road…. Lanchester makes us care deeply about his imperiled characters and their struggles, traumatic and ludicrous, as he astutely illuminates the paradoxes embedded in generosity and greed, age and illness, financial crime and religious fanaticism, immigration, exile, and terror. A remarkably vibrant and engrossing novel about what we truly value.”
Joseph O’Neill
“Searching,
expert, on the money. I loved it.”
Cólm Toibín
Capital comes in a great tradition of novels which are filled with the news of now, in which the intricacies of the present moment are noticed with clarity and relish and then brilliantly dramatized. It is clear that its characters, its wisdom, and the scope and range of its sympathy, will fascinate readers into the far future.”
Claire Messud
“Precise, humane and often hilarious, John Lanchester’s Capital teems with life. Its Dickensian sweep and its clear-eyed portrayal of the end of a strange era make this novel not only immensely enjoyable, but important, too.”
Library Journal
It's 2008, and even as the economy shudders and falls, something sinister is happening on Pepys Road, London. The residents are all getting postcards reading "We Want What You Have." What that is, no one knows, but the ominousness fits perfectly with the anxiety of society at large, even as the novel chronicles the small, personal dramas of each household. Award winner Lanchester is always good to read.
Library Journal
The elderly Patricia Howe has a grandson named Smitty who does famously anonymous artworks in the public sphere that border on vandalism. Roger Yount, who works in the City, will likely go broke if he doesn't get an expected million-pound bonus, even as his shallowly consumerist wife plans her own Christmas getaway and hires ambitious Polish worker Bogdan (really named Zbigniew) to do more home improvements. Michael "Mickey" Lipton-Miller rents a house to a promising young football star from Senegal and his dad, while down the street Ahmed Kamal runs a shop with the help of family that includes dreamy pretend-rebel brother Shadid. Meanwhile, Quentina, an educated woman from Zimbabwe, hands out parking tickets but as an illegal keeps her head down. What do they have in common? They're all associated with Pepys Road in South London, where residents have been receiving vaguely ominous postcards saying "We Want What You Have." And their stories crash together in painful ways, sometimes because of the cards. VERDICT Lanchester (The Debt to Pleasure) weaves together multiple stories in an uncanny microcosm of contemporary British life that's incredibly rich and maybe just a bit heavy, like a pastry. Yet definitely worth a look. [See Prepub Alert, 12/5/11.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Kirkus Reviews
Elegant, elegiac, eloquent novel of London life in the time when things lolly-related are definitively beginning to fall to pieces. Pepys Road was once such a nice street, a place destroyed by a V-2 rocket in World War II and rebuilt in such a way that aspirational veterans and young people could buy a stake in the British Dream. But that was then. Now, in 2007, after boom and bust and boom and bust, in a time of "bonuses which were big multiples of the national average salary, and a general climate of hysteria [that] affected everything to do with house prices"--well, only the rich can afford to buy in, and the old-timers are increasingly besieged. One of them is the well-heeled and pound-laden banker around whom Lanchester's (Fragrant Harbor, 2002, etc.) novel, as leisurely and complex as an Edith Wharton yarn, turns. But even he is much put-out, since his wife can't seem to get it in her head that money is not simply a thing to be spent at every waking moment. Meanwhile, from out in the darkness, messages are raining down, vaguely threatening, saying, "We want what you have." Ah, but practically everyone in this book wants everything, and those who don't want at least something that they don't have, from lost youth to a little peace and quiet. Who are the authors of these mystery demands? One thing that DI Mill (think, fleetingly, of John Stuart) concludes is that, first, they're not Nigerians or Kosovars or Eskimos, and second, though capable of better things, he's glad to have the distraction, even if "when he was doing routine repetitive work, that it was the equivalent of harnessing a racehorse to a plough." Mill finds plenty to do, and so does Roger, our banker, who's got a financial empire to save on top of his own bankbook and marriage. An expertly written novel of modern manners, with moments that read as if David Lodge or Malcolm Bradbury had stepped out of academia to take on the world of money and power.
The New York Times Book Review
Lanchester's assured, detailed overview of today's Britain recalls…Private Eye, the satirical publication that has taken the pulse of the country's body politic for half a century…Its regular features carve British behavior into attackable, overlapping compartments: real estate…banking…politics…journalism…and so on. Lanchester's novel integrates all these spheres and more. Reading Capital is like getting a crash course in the transformation of British mores and class distinctions, which otherwise might require a decade of remedial Private Eye-reading to decode.
—Liesl Schillinger
The Barnes & Noble Review

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.

Jason Farago is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in the Guardian, the London Review of Books, n+1, Dissent, Frieze, and other publications. Trained as an art historian, he has contributed to several exhibition catalogs on art since 1960. He recently returned to his hometown of New York following a long sojourn in London.

Reviewer: Jason Farago

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393082074
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/11/2012
  • Pages: 528
  • Sales rank: 426,646
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

John Lanchester

John Lanchester is the author of three novels, including The Debt to Pleasure and Capital, as well as I.O.U., a book on the financial crisis.. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books and was awarded the 2008 E.M. Forster Award. He lives in London.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 24, 2012

    Very enjoyable

    Couldn't put it down. Characters you care about, with some very unsympathetic but interesting none the less. Very strong parallel stories without a hard-to-believe coming together where everyone's in the same room or something. I feel the author did a great job of understanding the souls of people from very different walks of life. Higly recommend.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 30, 2012

    I couldn't put it down, literally. I got up in the middle of th

    I couldn't put it down, literally. I got up in the middle of the night because I just had to finish it. Characters were amazingly real, and I found myself rooting for them. I work in the financial sector in NY rather than London, but it's the same, it seems, because he captured it exactly right.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 27, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Needs work.

    I think CAPITAL was lacking in most areas - adventure, mystery, intrigue, drama.
    The language was crude. Suspense was simply not there.
    There were too many characters involved for just one book.
    That said, the characters were, however, very well defined and separated
    so it was not that hard to recount who was being discussed.
    The author has talent but needs to add a smooth flow and energy to his writing.
    Many of us would appreciate 'cleaner' language. It can be accomplished by tactfully alluding to the words and crses without actually using them.

    4 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2014

    A must read my John

    Great book and easy read. One of the best books I read in 2013.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 15, 2012

    Wonderful from start to finish

    (((& g

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 25, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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