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 Slate's culture editor 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.

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.”)

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.

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.