Literature / Capital
I wanted the book to begin with the reader knowing something that the characters don't: that this moment in 2007 to 2008 is the peak of a bubble. It's a curious thing to say about a book set in such a recent past, but
Capital was intended to be a historical novel.
John Lanchester in the Guardian, March 2013
is a 2012 novel by British author and journalist John Lanchester, set in 2007 and 2008, just as the world is teetering over the edge of economic boom into financial crisis. It follows the people who live and work on a single street in Clapham (an expensive upper-middle-class area of London), Pepys Road
, taking as its starting point a mysterious harassment campaign in which all of the residents begin receiving postcards, photos of their houses, and eventually much nastier items bearing the message 'We Want What You Have'. However, it follows its Loads and Loads of Characters
through a myriad spiralling subplots, some linked and some independent. Lanchester has referred to it as his 'Big Fat London Novel', citing Charles Dickens
as his primary influence, but almost every review it received at some point used the phrase 'state-of-the-nation novel', reflecting its expansive and varied portrait of a society straining at the seams.
Its characters include:
- Petunia Howe, an eighty-four-year-old widow dying of a brain tumour
- Mary Leatherby, Petunia's daughter, who relocates from Maldon in Dorset to Pepys Road to look after her
- Smitty (real name Graham), a thinly-veiled Expy of Banksy who is also Mary's son and Petunia's grandson
- Parker French, Smitty's incredibly bitter ex-assistant, and his solicitor girlfriend Daisy
- Roger Yount, an investment banker, his oblivious and selfish wife Arabella, and their young children, Joshua and Conrad
- Mark, Roger's ambitious deputy at the bank
- Matya, the Younts' Hungarian nanny
- Zbigniew, aka Bogdan, a Polish builder who does work on both Petunia and the Younts' houses, and ends up falling for Matya
- Freddy Kamo, a preternaturally gifted seventeen-year-old Senegalese footballer who's just moved to London after being signed to a prestigious Premiership club, and his father Patrick
- Mickey Lipton-Miller, a manager for Freddy's club who acts as their main intermediary with the Kamos
- Ahmed Kamal, a Pakistani Muslim who runs the Pepys Road corner shop, his wife Rohinka, and their young children, Fatima and Mohammed
- Shahid and Usman, Ahmed's varyingly irresponsible younger brothers
- Quentina Mkfesi, a Zimbabwean asylum seeker working illegally as a traffic warden
- DI Mill, a - by the novel's standards - unusually well-balanced and non-dysfunctional policeman in charge of the 'We Want What You Have' investigation
Not to be confused with the work on economics by Karl Marx
or the collection of science fiction short stories by Orson Scott Card
Tropes found in the novel include:
- Arranged Marriage: Rohinka and Ahmed have a very happy one. Shahid and Usman both consider it.
- Big Fancy House: Some of the Pepys Road houses are bigger and fancier than others, but due to the massive increase in property prices, especially in London, they're all very valuable. This is a minor plot and significant thematic point.
- Black Comedy: Frequent. An example is the complete dissonance between Roger's perspective on life and that of the average reader; when his bank decides to tighten its belt and give out 2007 Christmas bonuses that are smaller than the recipients' annual salaries, searching for some way to describe 'the scale of the tragedy', he compares it to soldiers being bombed by their own side in Iraq.
- Cool Car: Used as a symbol of the wealthy characters' Conspicuous Consumption, particularly in relation to Quentina's job (she and her similarly underpaid colleagues have a running competition to ticket the most expensive car, and early in the novel she hits the jackpot by finding Mickey's Aston Martin parked illegally). The element of the 'We Want What You Have' harassment which everyone takes most seriously, other than possibly the threat to property prices, is the keying of all the cars in the street.
- Doorstopper: The paperback edition is 850 pages.
- Downer Ending: Approximately half of the subplots.
- Dysfunction Junction: It's a street rather than a junction, but otherwise Pepys Road is a near-literal, if reasonably realistic example.
- Eat the Rich: One of the slogans that the 'We Want What You Have' writer superimposes on pictures of the street.
- Empathic Environment: The rain on the day that Roger is fired and the Lehman Brothers collapse hits the news.
- Ethnic Menial Labour: Sadly but realistically, most of the immigrant characters are examples of this, including the two who have advanced degrees.
- Green-Eyed Monster: Parker's bitter jealousy of Smitty.
- Hands-Off Parenting: Roger and Arabella, to the extent that they find it a struggle to cut down from two nannies to one. Both of them are all but incompetent when forced to take care of their children alone.
- Hellhole Prison: Shahid and Quentina both end up in them, Quentina indefinitely.
- Idle Rich: Arabella and her best friend Saskia. Patrick is forced into this role by Freddy's success, and hates it.
- Laser-Guided Karma: Given the unlikeability of almost all the banker characters, the crash can be read a lot like this. Roger certainly sees it that way.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: De rigueur in this kind of Big Fat London Novel. Writing about the sub-genre in the Observer, Alex Preston identified it as a key feature:
Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now remains the supreme example of the state of the nation novel, a sprawling tour de force with a huge cast of characters and a labyrinthine plot. The shifting viewpoints, keen engagement with contemporary themes, and use of London as a microcosm: this is the model upon which a number of important recent novels have drawn.
- Mad Mathematician: Mark has shades of this.
- Meaningful Name: 'Shahid' means 'martyr'.
- Narcissist: Mark and Arabella are the most egregious examples, but many characters show shades of it, particularly Parker, Smitty, and Zbigniew.
- Opposites Attract: Sort of. One reason for Roger's attraction to Matya is that she represents a complete opposite to the lifestyle with which he is becoming increasingly disillusioned and the wife he can barely stand any more. Matya, however, finds him repellent.
- Point of View: Lanchester takes the omniscient narrator to extremes, delving into the thoughts of any and (almost) all characters with ease, including incredibly minor ones like the judge who almost gets assigned to Quentina's hearing but doesn't.
- Rags to Riches: Freddy's story.
- Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Zbigniew agonises over whether to give Mary the money he found in her house. When he confesses all to Matya, she takes it utterly for granted that he will.
- Selective Obliviousness: Arabella reacts to hers and Roger's financial ruin this way, to the extent that she comforts herself by going shopping.
- Sexless Marriage: Roger and Arabella don't quite have one, but their marriage is so passionless that they might as well. When they sell their house after Roger loses his job, Roger goes into their bedroom and thinks that they must have had sex in there sixty times: once a month for five years.
- The Thing That Would Not Leave: Shahid's friend Iqbal, who invites himself to stay, is an incredibly annoying house guest, stays for seven month, and to add insult to injury leaves incriminating evidence of his interest in jihadism which gets Shahid arreted for terrorim.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Some of the subplots have very open endings. This is to some extent a result of the novel's realistically cynical attitude; a storyline about an illegal immigrant being caught and refused asylum was never going to get a neat resolution, let alone a happy ending.
- Women Are Wiser: Averted with Roger and Arabella. They're both vacuous, spoilt and living in a bubble of wealth and privilege, but Roger is at least partially aware of that and occasionally dreams of a more fulfilling life. Arabella, on the other hand, is completely oblivious to the ridiculousness of her lifestyle.
- Write What You Know: Lanchester has clearly done a lot of research in order to convincingly portray such a wide range of characters, but some of them appear to draw on his own life experience. For example, his depiction of a Premiership football team was fairly obviously informed by his previous career as a football journalist.
- Wrong Genre Savvy: Mark sees himself as a maverick hero who doesn't have to play by the rules, either of the company or the banking system; he looks on Compliance, the department of the bank which ensures adherence (in a manner of speaking) to the legal restrictions on the bank's trading with complete contempt. It doesn't go well for him.