A Sprawling Novel About London Samuel Pepys Would Have Loved

Reading between the lines.
June 2 2012 12:10 AM

Pros and Cons

The strivers and schemers and wankers and winners of John Lanchester’s Capital.

(Continued from Page 1)

On the corner of Pepys Road lives a Muslim family, the Kamals, who run the shop downstairs. Their plot developments are Lanchester’s hoariest, but his writing about them is his finest. It’s a mix of fine-grained, reportorial detail, and vivid, imaginative projection into the minds of characters who in a lesser writer’s hands could become clichés. The three brothers, Ahmed, Usman, and Shahid, are each very different and constantly on each other’s nerves; all of them are united in terror of their mother, whose visit in the second half of the book is a masterful comic set piece; and at the center of it is Rohinka, whose marriage to Ahmed was arranged in Pakistan but who nevertheless has grown to love her irritable, slouching husband. Late in the book, during Mrs. Kamal’s torturous visit, Lanchester gives Rohinka a scene that perfectly captures the despond that can come over a parent at 5 in the morning when a child simply will not go back to sleep, and she realizes her ledger for the day is already in the red:

Rohinka sighed. She hated the feeling of being already tired from the day’s events, right at its very start, before the real day had even begun, but she pointed to Fatima’s favourite stool. “Ten minutes, then back to bed,” Rohinka said. “Or you’ll be too tired to go to school.” Then, when her daughter hopped up and down, clapping with delight at being allowed to stay with her, she felt guilty.

John Lanchester.
John Lanchester

Photograph by Coll McDonnell.

Capital views London mostly through the wrong end of a telescope, its field of vision narrowed to Pepys Road and the people who spend time there, presenting the city in microcosm. Only once does Lanchester provide us with a panoramic view of the city, and it’s notable that it’s Zbigniew who gets it, way up in the London Eye trying to impress a date. Of all the characters in the novel it’s Zbigniew who is least at home in this city, constantly comparing it unfavorably to the Poland he once left and plans to return to as soon as he’s got enough capital to go into business with his dad. (Even in its shitty weather London can’t compare: “It was raining but not cold in a serious Polish way.”) Zbigniew, who with his friends is forever disregarding “the London interludes of their lives” in favor of the “real Polish lives” they’ll soon be living, finds himself fascinated by the whole of the city stretching out to the horizon, its physical aspect, its shape: “big and low in the middle, with a higher edge in both directions, like a gigantic saucer.”

London might get its hooks into Zbigniew by the end, even as it might lose hold of other characters in this big, funny, sure-footed novel. (Even Roger, quintessential City man, finds himself dreaming of running off to a tropical paradise and opening up a beach shack where he’d grill fish. After all, “everyone had always said his barbecues were brilliant.”)

Capital takes as its milieu the beginning days of the current recession—Roger smiles when reading of the collapse of Lehman Bros., thinking, “Nice to know he wasn’t the only one having a super-shit day”—but it’s less interested in providing a bird’s-eye view of our new era than in tracking how the boom and onrushing bust affect his individual characters. Still, his ledgers and tallies suggest a warning of sorts about what’s worth keeping from pre-crash society: Lanchester seems to prize the city as a home for the exceptional, while feeling that in the end its ground-level industriousness—“Real work never left you feeling worse,” Zbigniew points out—is what’s of real value. It’s a slightly cozy moral for such a sprawling book.

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But for all his ambition, Lanchester seems modest about the novel’s ability to encompass a place as unruly as London or its teeming multitudes; very late in the book, a character whom I once disliked but grew to love despairs of the novels available in the detention center where the character waits for deportation. Lanchester writes that the detainee couldn’t

see the point of anything that was made up. Makela said that books helped her to escape, but that didn’t make any sense. A book couldn’t get you out of the detention centre, or land like a helicopter and carry you off, or magically turn into a UK passport which gave you the right of residency. Escape was very precisely, very specifically what a book couldn’t help you do. Not in any literal sense.

Capital never quite turns into that helicopter, carrying the reader off; its short chapters balk the plot’s forward motion, and Lanchester isn’t particularly interested in bringing his broad cast of characters together for some great cataclysm at the end. That’s not how it works in the city, where we’re all living our own lives, lives which only occasionally, haphazardly intersect with everyone else’s. But in the end I wasn’t bothered by the book’s fitful momentum, because I thought of it less as a novel than as a series of diary entries by thoughtful characters whose lives, together, gave me a picture of contemporary London—a city of ambition, of shocking inequities, of grave crimes and foolish misdemeanors, a city that Samuel Pepys would barely recognize but nevertheless one in which he, striver and scrapper that he was, would do quite well for himself indeed.

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Capital by John Lanchester. Norton.

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