A Capital offence against literature
John Lanchester has been compared to Dickens for his sweeping novel about late-Noughties London. But he gives us ciphers not characters, and prejudice rather than plot.
Some people write novels because they have a burning truth to convey. Others just want to knock out a potboiler, or make money, or promote propaganda. Having made it through almost 600 pages of John Lanchester’s Capital, I still can’t work out what muse was at play for him to dedicate so much time to writing this novel. To be blunt: why did he bother?
Many critics have bigged up Capital, claiming it takes Britain’s pulse around the start of the financial crisis in 2008. That might be true if you see ‘Britain’ as consisting only of London, and you see London as just a collection of bourgeois individuals with a few tokenistic Muslims and Polish decorators thrown in for good measure. Lanchester’s microcosm of the nation is a fictional street in South London – Pepys Street – which was originally built in the 1800s for the lower middle classes but is now highly sought after by successful City types. ‘Britain had become a country of winners and losers, and all the people in the street, just by living there, had won’, he says. (Except those he doesn’t focus on very much, who could no longer afford to live in the street, and therefore moved out.)
In Lanchester’s view, the idea of what it means to have ‘won’ is a questionable one, especially in the run-up to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the onset of financial crisis. Through charting the fates of the characters on Pepys Street, Lanchester’s moral and political attitude towards their behaviours is laid bare. In fact, talking about the ‘behaviours’ of his characters would be wrong, since not a single character in Capital exhibits any subjectivity or goes beyond being a mere cipher, behaving in a way that Lanchester believes such a type should behave. Lanchester is either unwilling or unable to conjure up living, breathing subjects; instead he details the lives of symbolic individuals. He writes less as a novelist, more as a beat anthropologist.
While football managers, uppity doctors and insurance men get a rough ride, Lanchester reserves most of his bile for bankers. He gleefully constructs strawman bankers to bash. Take poor Roger, the middle-aged banker who, we are told, desires a million-pound bonus, ‘because he felt it was his due and it was a proof of his masculine worth’. Such jarring moments – and there are many – reveal just how little Lanchester has been able to empathise with the actors he has created, his creative waters continually being muddied by his own value judgements. The extent to which the reader might be able to empathise with the characters will be determined by his own imaginative efforts rather than by Lanchester having imbued the characters with any life.
Lanchester repeatedly invites us to sneer at money-obsessed, inept bankers. They have no taste in art, haven’t the faintest idea how to bring up their children, and when they try to attend to their children they end up covered in shit (literally). They spend their time plotting, scheming and gambling, and fantasising about taking young employees from behind. When one gets a smaller bonus than he expected, he is physically sick. And yet these grotesque bankers rail against the ‘tyranny of the mediocre’ and see themselves as supermen.
Lanchester is also a beater of bankers’ wives (in the literary sense, of course). He clearly despises the partners of evil bankers, depicting them as always acting on impulse, craving overpriced luxuries that are ‘so lovely that the expensiveness [becomes] part of the point’. In the end, there is no redemption for bankers’ wives: ‘No Plan B. [It’s] labels, logos and conspicuous consumption all the way.’
Through his more sympathetic depiction of other characters – the Poles, Hungarians and Muslim shopkeepers, who undertake ‘real work [that never leaves] you feeling worse’ – you get an insight into what Lanchester probably really believes. These characters are not the native working classes, we quickly note – they are above that layer of society and, like Lanchester, are capable of looking down on it. So in the eyes of one of the shopkeepers, the internet, for example, is ‘a giant collective conspiracy to waste time. Given infinite freedom of intellectual movement, it turned out that what people mainly want to do is look at pictures of Kelly Brook’s tits.’
A Polish decorator is disdainful of people who moan about public transport: ‘They should just shut up. Yes, the transport was shit, but lots of things about life were shit… They should live in a place where life really was hard for a while.’ Other characters make mocking comments about the ‘hilarious’ idea that Christmas is a religious festival when it has become so riddled with consumerism: ‘everyone running round shopping as if their lives depended on it.’ Through these ‘good’ characters, Lanchester is able to have a pop at the garish lower orders in Britain as well as at the super-rich banking classes. The people who come out best in Capital are those who realise that there is more to life than money and Kelly Brook’s tits.
One of the characters – an asylum-seeker who is a former Marxist – quotes Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire: ‘Humans make their own history, but not under circumstances of their own choosing.’ This comes across as unintentionally ironic, since little history making takes place in Lanchester’s novel. The characters on Pepys Street are primarily victims of circumstance: one is wrongfully locked up because he is a Muslim; another suffers a nasty sporting accident; one is fired due to his (understandable) ignorance of the actions of a subordinate; another gets cancer and chooses not to have chemotherapy.
Where characters do act upon the world, it is to deceive (the young rogue trader in a London bank; the Polish builder who intentionally takes the wrong mobile phone). Motivations are base: desire for money, status, stuff, sex. And where there is salvation, it only comes when material aspirations are reined in and the characters realise that they must ‘change change change’ their values, appreciating family and the benefits of an ‘economically smaller life’. On Pepys Street, we’re told, it was as if the houses themselves ‘had come alive and had needs and wishes of their own… Amazon parcels, personal trainers, cleaners, plumbers, teachers, and all day long, all of them going up to the houses like supplicants and being swallowed up by them’.
Freedom from Pepys Street can be found by hopping – or, more likely, being thrown – off the hedonic treadmill and playing football in Senegal, dying, abandoning a suitcase of cash, or by walking in a field in Norfolk: that is, through pursuing a quiet, conservative family life where people never want to do ‘anything that cost[s] money’ (author’s italics).
This questionable morality could be forgiven if Capital had a plot to speak of, if there were a driving narrative that kept the reader gripped. But other than the red thread of a wannabe Banksy putting postcards through the doors of Pepys Street, which say ‘I want what you have’, there is no plot at all. As they are tossed about by circumstance, the characters barely interact, which may accurately reflect their alienation from one another, but it is deeply unsatisfying for the reader.
Some have compared Lanchester to Dickens. Yet where Dickens produced characters that had an inner life, who transcended the author and his time to speak to an aspect of the human condition, Lanchester’s characters exist merely as puppets – albeit well-crafted ones – for the purpose of expressing the author’s own prejudices. For demanding more, one suspects that Dickens’ Oliver, if reimagined by Lanchester, would have been depicted as greedy or brainwashed by consumerism.
There is scope for a great novel to be written about London in the late Noughties, which captures something about our lives and aspirations in this era of crisis and social fragmentation. Sadly, Capital is not it.