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.

Illustration by Dan Zettwoch.

Illustration by Dan Zettwoch.

“It is pretty to see what money will do,” Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary in 1667. It’s not happenstance that John Lanchester has named the fictional street at the center of his new novel, Capital, after Pepys. The money-obsessed residents of Pepys Road in South London—bankers and their wives, strivers from foreign lands, gadflies, homebodies, and troublemakers—would have seemed, despite the 300-year gap, pleasingly familiar to the great London diarist. As a shady businessman, a lover of ladies, a chronicler of a city already bursting at the seams, Pepys would have quite enjoyed Capital. And future historians might find the minutely detailed novel as useful a guide to London at the Great Recession as we, today, find Pepys’ diaries to London at the Great Fire.

Dan Kois Dan Kois

Dan Kois is a senior editor at Slate and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

The houses on Pepys Road, Lanchester writes, were built in the late 19th century, “during the boom that followed the abolition of the tax on brick,” and by 2008, when the book is set, they’ve gone from being the dwellings of middle-class families to markers of wealth, their worth driven by the relentless market into the millions of pounds. Though with few exceptions the residents of Pepys Road don’t know each other very well, they know each other’s houses. And they know what the houses are worth. “When people met they held off the subject of house prices with a conscious sense of restraint,” Lanchester writes, “and gave in to the desire to talk about them with relief.” It is delightful to talk about home values, of course, when it’s your own home’s skyrocketing value you’re really discussing, and Pepys Road has turned into a sort of “casino in which you were guaranteed to be a winner”—indeed, London, in Lanchester’s telling, has become a city “of winners and losers, and all the people in the street, just by living there, had won.”

As the novel opens, the residents of Pepys Road have begun receiving mysterious postcards: photographs of their own houses, bearing the legend WE WANT WHAT YOU HAVE. This harassment campaign, which escalates into acts of minor vandalism, is the thread connecting the residents of the neighborhood, the novel’s central mystery, and by far the weakest part of the book. Lanchester neither gives the mystery any urgency nor explores the ugliness of the class divisions it’s meant to expose; when we learn the identity of the person behind the campaign, we shrug. But that’s fine; though the subplot feels like an early brainstorm that maybe shouldn’t have made it through editing, it never torpedoes the rest of the book, which is rich in observation and warm in spirit, even toward its most disagreeable subjects.

Those would be Roger and Arabella Yount. He’s a banker coasting through life, a handsome, lazy-ish public-school prat who doesn’t understand the fiendishly complicated numbers crunched within his own department but knows he deserves a million-pound bonus. She’s a frivolous, entitled boob; the closest she comes to introspection is aggressive retail therapy. Like many wealthy people, they believe they aren’t truly wealthy—just “your typical London struggling well-off,” Arabella clarifies—and the math Roger does when we first meet him goes a long way toward confirming that, in a way, they are on the razor’s edge. Roger’s salary of £150,000 “was nice as what Arabella called ‘frock money,’ but it did not pay even for his two mortgages.” Vacations cost £10,000 a week, plus business class airfare, because Roger believes “the whole point of having a bit of money was not to have to fly scum class.” School for their son: £20,000. Nanny for the other son: £35,000. Weekend nanny: £9,000. Cars. Clothes. Taxes and pensions. And above it all

the general hard-to-believe expensiveness of everything in London, restaurants and shoes and parking fines and cinema tickets and gardeners and the feeling that every time you went anywhere or did anything money just started melting off you. Roger didn’t mind that, he was completely up for it, but it did mean that if he didn’t get his million-pound bonus this year he was at genuine risk of going broke.

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It’s not the last time that a character in Capital will tally what he has and what he needs; the characters in Lanchester’s London have complicated financial, strategic, and emotional ledger sheets, and the book is studded with discussions of worth, value, and want. Quite a bit of Roger’s money goes to Zbigniew Tomascewski, Arabella’s favorite builder, who early in the book uses some higher math to explain why an average-looking Polish workman is able to do so well with women:

His philosophy was that if you were clean and financially solvent and not ugly you were already in the top 30 per cent of men. If in addition you listened to what women said to you, or were able to fake doing so convincingly, you were in the top 10 or even 5 per cent. Then all it took was to apply common sense: don’t seem desperate, don’t get drunk, do let the girl get drunk … It was all to do with improving your percentages.

In Capital, characters are exquisitely conscious of the value of everything. A parking warden, for whom each illegally parked auto is another step toward her quota, also competes with her co-workers to see who can ticket the most expensive car each day. An old woman, fearful about her dizzy spells, visits a doctor whose distracted brusqueness makes clear that he is “so much more important than her.” A Banksy-like graffiti artist (“Smitty”) knows that his real commodity, “his most interesting artefact,” is anonymity. A daughter, after her mother’s death, thinks about her inheritance, a house on Pepys Road: “In the debit column, she had lost her mother; in the credit column, she now had a gigantic pile of cash.” In a terrific irony, the only thing in Capital that proves to be nearly worthless is, for complicated reasons, a suitcase full of money.

Though Pepys Road is rich, and we spend some time with its rich denizens—the Younts, a Senegalese football star and his father, that daughter and her gigantic pile of cash—Lanchester is much more interested in those who work for them, like Zbigniew, or the cop investigating the postcards, or the Hungarian nanny enchanted by the magic she sees the Younts’ money do. The novel gives us two separate scheming underlings, including Smitty’s assistant, about whom Smitty cares so little he wishes he could just call all his assistants Nigel. (“Every year or so there would be a new Nigel. Short Nigels, tall Nigels, hairy Nigels, skinhead Nigels, Rasta Nigels – but always, in the final analysis, Nigels.”)