Book Review: Capital
by John Lanchester
W.W.Norton & Co., 2012
We can’t really be certain what sucks the life out of every money-novel ever written, although some possibilities suggest themselves. We tend to want our fictional characters to be not so much real as rarefied – and there’s nothing rarefied about money, it’s as sordid as sordid gets. It’s also petty, even when it’s vital – there’s a great old “Law & Order” episode where a crooked judge admits in the end, simply, “I needed the money,” and when he says that, we feel more scorn for him than we would for a whole interrogation room full of idealistic terrorists. Also, no matter what Randian sadomasochists might contend, we read fiction to escape, and nothing bursts the much-ballyhooed willing suspension of disbelief faster than being reminded that the check you post-dated for Friday will bounce if it’s cashed today. Like sex, money is useful in fiction only as a grounding, a counter-weight (think how dramatically unstoppable James Tyrone would be in Long Day’s Journey Into Night if he weren’t reflexively crabbing about throwing away money to the electric company) – as anybody familiar with the Bataan Death-March that is Tropic of Cancer can attest, if the counter-weight is all you’re given, you’re better off eating noodles and staring at the wall.
The counter-weight nature of money is summoned early and often in John Lanchester’s big, floridly plotted new novel Capital, which hinges on the U.S.-caused crash of the world economy in 2008, because Lanchester decides to center his plot on the various inhabitants of Pepys Road in London. Readers of Samuel Pepys’ diary will recall how no matter what amazing thing Pepys did that week – bowling with My Lord, getting noticed by Charles II, smooching with a high-society madame while a Shakespeare play unfolds onstage – he comes back over and over to counting up his net worth of money. For Pepys the gesture was purely private, a reassurance about the bedrock on which all those other things are built.
Likewise the people of Pepys Road, a newly-posh residential area swelling with inflated property values (“Britain had become a country of winners and losers,” we’re told, “and all the people in the street, just by living there, had won”). Lanchester is an indefatigable stager, and he gives his huge cast of characters a delightful array of fairly one-dimensional attributes. There’s callow but likeable banker Roger Yount and his nakedly avaricious wife Arabella (fans of both British history and more pointedly Anthony Trollope will prick up their ears immediately at that name); there’s soccer star Freddie Kamo and his put-upon manager-dad Patrick; there’s elderly, tumor-afflicted Petunia Howe and her rebellious grandson; there’s the requisite Muslim stooges ready to either be al-Qaeda or be railroadingly suspected of being al-Qaeda … and then there’s the maguffin (we’ve already covered the fact that Lanchester is an old stager, yes?): a mysterious somebody sending postcards to all the Pepys Road inhabitants scrawled with a slogan good enough for Occupy Wall Street: “We Want What You Have.”
Thus the folks on Pepys Road are being stalked from without and within, by the We Want scoundrel (whose identity Lanchester expertly shuffles under cups until the last possible moment, the ham) and by the massive economic defenestration we all know is coming. The details of all these dozens of characters curl and unfurl like campfire stories, and although the writing is often pedestrian (startlingly often – the author’s earlier novels were scrubbed much cleaner), the energy never flags. None of Lanchester’s characters are happy, and all their unhappinesses (even poor Petunia’s) ultimately derive from money, although these people find plenty of other objects on which to vent their ire, as when Kamo’s father rages at being his son’s employee:
He hated England, he hated the life he was living while he kept Freddy company. He hated the weather, he hated the English language, he hated the year-round cold and rain and the way it made him feel old, he hated the extra layers of clothing he had to wear to fight the weather, an he hated the way central heating made him feel sweaty and cold and dried out all at the same time. He had looked forward to the spring, to the time when, he was told, everything would start getting warmer, but the English spring was ridiculous, grey and not just cold but damply cold.
And periodically Lanchester indulges in the bawdy he’s always done so inimitably, even if it’s just dim-bulb Roger fantasizing about having a quick fling:
He had had enough to drink to spend the ride home thinking about how nice it would be to take her straight to bed and give her the seeing-to of her life, her hair spread over the pillow, face-up, then face-down, then face-up again … then roses and champagne in the morning, and start all over again the next day.
There’s a whole world of groundling humor compressed into that “face-up, then face-down, then face-up again,” but you can’t use a counter-weight against a counter-weight. We keep coming back to money, and we’re supposed to care about it:
He had closed the position and hidden the profit in the no-longer-dormant account. Then he had gone on to make a big bet on the dollar, the highly out-of-fashion dollar, against a basket of other currencies, and that was going so well that he was still running an open position, and was well on his way to doubling his money again. This was not mere evidence that he might have a talent for this kind of thing: it was not an indication: it was the thing itself. This was what genius looked like.
What Lanchester has done is take one London street and imagine how the Great Recession would hit all of its inhabitants. Those inhabitants have other concerns as well (Petunia’s is obvious, her grandson’s is obvious, even Patrick’s is obvious if you imagine his meal-ticket son getting hurt somehow), but there’s a reason this book isn’t set in Bath: the money is everything.
Which is why the thing is eventually so boring. Money-novels can’t help it. Dreiser fought a losing battle against that flat fact a century ago when he took his own turn at writing this book (his was called The Financier and was considerably less funny or dextrous than Lanchester), and a half-century before him, Thackeray suffered the same defeat when the money parts of The Newcomes (where we encounter the word ‘capitalism’ for the first time in a novel) swallowed up all the other parts. Money as a counter-weight can be marvellously effective (when loud businessman Rex Motram says in Brideshead Revisited “there’ll be a shake-up coming soon,” we might believe him, but we want to hurry back to the drama at Marchmain House just the same), but it’s too small to be a source of drama, and it negates empathy. If a well-dressed stranger approaches you on the street and says “I need help,” you’re intrigued; if he says “I need money,” you’re immediately repulsed, and rightly so. Likewise if a novelist says “care about these people because they’re unhappy,” we’re intrigued. But if he says “care about these people because they’re unhappy about money,” we have nothing for him. We gave at the office.