Capital by John Lanchester
July 23, 2012 § Leave a comment
Once upon a time, when London and much of the UK was still hanging out at the Cool Britannia party, celebrating old Gordon’s fiscal policies that put an end to boom and bust, not entirely out of love with Tony despite the early inklings of serious problems with the WMD dossier and the David Kelly report (now there’s a subject I’d like to read a novel about), not yet brought to its knees by the Olympic fiasco nor alarmed by terrorist attacks and threats, nobody wanted to ask how the holy muffintop this entire fandango was remotely sustainable. Anger at bankers was ridiculed as resentment; the idea that we might want to question quite how London had turned itself into the place of everlasting growth was repugnant and incomprehensible.
Even the people who were earning normal amounts of money were all over the hedonism—weekends in Tallinn and Stockholm, gourmet restaurants, sporting events, music festivals, gastropubs, theatre, fishing, sailing, horse riding, parachuting, stadium concerts, opera, ballet, clubs (night and gentlemen’s), food festivals. (And of course pubs. Always, always, in London, there is alcohol.) It didn’t matter what your interests were; in fact you didn’t have interests any more. You simply did it all. Experience was what counted, especially since the very things that had brought the party to town (globalisation, Chinese and other Asian labour making goods cheap, deregulation of the financial industry, no political or financial restriction on foreign or buy-to-let ownership) were precisely why all these twenty- and thirty-somethings with only average salaries had so much disposable income: they were never going to be able to afford to buy even a broom cupboard in London, so why even bother trying to save?
John Lanchester’s new novel, Capital, begins in that heady period. It’s 2007, and after being introduced to Petunia Howe, Pepys Road’s oldest and longest resident, we meet Roger Yount, smooth, old-City Roger, with his suave entitlement and guileless complacency. His lack of expertise or indeed usefulness in banking prove no impediment to his making lots of money, both in salary and bonuses. In fact, the only obstacle he has yet encountered comes in the form of the first economic hiccup, nothing to do with Roger personally, which drastically and unfairly reduces his expected bonus. This poses an enormous problem for Roger, who is living more or less beyond his means and mixing not just with the rich but also the super-rich and the incomprehensibly rich, and consequently feeling very poor and hard done by.
Lanchester writes about Roger with derisive eloquence, but when we meet Roger’s wife, Arabella, this intense narratorial dislike pales in comparison to how much Lanchester appears to despise Arabella, a stay-at-home mother of two small boys, but one with a full-time nanny plus a weekend nanny. Arabella spends even more money and has even less idea of its value than Roger does (Roger is at least given the grace of occasionally wondering what the point of it all is and whether it might not be better just to drop out and potter around in the country doing something more meaningful, and of admirably coping as a parent in a situation where it is implied Arabella would be utterly at sea). It’s paragraph after paragraph of invective against her false consciousness.
And then there’s a wonderful paragraph where he describes how Arabella thinks she’s perfect—not rich enough to be dislikeable, in fact rather poor if you think about it, and how she appreciates and understands the value of money. Aren’t we all like this in some small way, judging those with more money to flash around as profligate, undeserving fools and those with less as, well, profligate undeserving fools, albeit for different reasons and with different outcomes? So with the Younts well and truly skewered, we meet the other inhabitants of Pepys Road.
The inhabitants of the street, their visiting relatives, plus the people who service the houses and their residents (African refugee traffic wardens, Polish builders, various European nannies, the Asian family that owns the corner shop, representing the various types of British Muslims—thankfully more complex than they threaten to be at the beginning) form a little microcosm of London’s economy. There are a few omissions and problems, for instance that almost all the white English people in the book are fabulously wealthy; that the young couple in their early twenties have a two-bedroom flat (space is too expensive to waste money like that, at least in the experience of everyone I know); that there are no public sector workers (even the traffic wardens are outsourced).
This last is a major omission in my opinion, partly because of the sheer number of Londoners in the public sector, people managing on salaries in the low twenties who began with—and still harbour—the same socioeconomic and lifestyle expectations as their university peers who moved towards the money. It’s not just eastern Europeans with degrees doing manual and service work who can’t actually afford to be there, but whole swathes of eager UK graduates and non-graduates trying to make their fortune and marvelling at the smell of money everywhere, always.
And then there’s the writing. It’s exhilarating, addictive and easily consumed. It’s also surprisingly easy to reproduce (try it: just pick a person who annoys you and describe them in fine detail, letting them mostly hang themselves but leaving just enough rope to tie a few fancy rhetorical bows so that the reader is in no doubt where you stand). But is it too easy? Is it too glossy, too clever by half? I confess its sheer ease with itself makes me think of rich people identifiable at a hundred paces by the cut of their clothes, the shape (and often the particular blonde) of their hair and the healthy glow of their skin. Something about Lanchester’s polish and stylistic wit makes me ever so slightly twitchy. It’s hilarious, but might the targets be a little too easy for a writer of Lanchester’s calibre?
Ultimately, Capital is a Punch and Judy show for the twenty-first century. Punch is the City, Judy (or one of the Judies) is the mysterious protestor who sends vaguely threatening notices to the residents of Pepys Road. The baby, put through the sausage machine one too many times, is the notion of fairness, responsibility, equality. The ineffective policeman is the government. Lanchester writes glib take-downs of archetypes delivered via a particularly English form of humour: faint but whip-sharp ridicule. It’s not that Lanchester hasn’t done the research to fatten up his characters; he has. It’s just so hard to pull all these people together and make it mean something. As satirical sketches of some recognisable London types, it’s outstanding and entertaining, but as a comment on the state of the nation, Whoops! (Lanchester’s non-fiction book on the economic fiasco) is more intellectually satisfying.
Capital is something of a cynical—yet still sweetly optimistic–remake of Love, Actually. There’s the loving descriptions of the chaos, the non-stop activity, the history, the scenery. It ends quietly with unexpected hope rather than despair for many of the characters, which is disconcerting, since one reason Lanchester is not really a Marxist—and see his recent LRB article on Marxism—is that unlike Marxists, he is not afraid of admitting that what we have now might actually, scarily, be the good thing; that the implosion of capitalism would hurt far more (more people, more painfully) than capitalism itself, at least in the short-term. The problem is that Capital won’t admit this. Everyone (except Arabella, who is clearly beyond redemption) is forgiven their sins and given a little candle of hope to light their way to the next crisis. The disappointment comes from the fact that we know, and we know that Lanchester knows (mostly from his outrageously good financial journalism for the masses), that the global financial tempest is not so easily brushed under the carpet.
That, then, was my original conclusion. But after pondering the novel overnight, I decided that Lanchester knew exactly what he was doing with the ending, and it’s infinitely more depressing than my first impression. By this point, several of the characters have been punished, including two who have (wrongly) suffered incarceration and two more facing the threat of it (perhaps less unjustly, although essentially they are being punished for wanting what other people have and want more of). But these are not the rich people. Capital is more damning than I at first realised: it’s not Lanchester brushing the problem under the carpet, but the world, at the request of the banks. Roger Yount has been punished, sure, but he can lose almost all of his wealth and still be richer than most people (just not anyone he knows). With his country house and his connections, he’s going to be absolutely fine. But the others—the ones who do the real work, the hard work, the undesirable work—are not so lucky.
So the City is dead, long live the City. Lanchester’s prognosis—the rich staying rich and the poor getting poorer, with the pole between the two becoming ever greasier—is grim.