John Lanchester's 'Capital': Lost in London on a not-so-easy street
British author John Lanchester's novel "Capital" masterfully interweaves the stories of several Londoners, including a banker, a performance artist, a Pakistani family and a Zimbabwean refugee, as their ambitions collide with 2007-2008's economic-train wreck.
Special to The Seattle Times
by John Lanchester
W.W. Norton, 528 pp., $26.95
In the popular imagination, London is ever foggy the way Seattle is ever wet, and while neither association withstands scrutiny, movies will insist upon socking London with heavy mist and Seattle with heavy sheets.
Since John Lanchester's latest novel is set in London and clocks in at 527 pages, the American in me braced for endless references to pea soup. But Lanchester, a screamingly good writer, is better than that. The book's only fog is the one his characters seem lost in.
Roger, a banker, has not a clue to what his wife, Arabella, thinks of him; Arabella is oblivious to what Zbigniew, their Polish handyman, thinks of her; Zbigniew would be mortified to discover what Matya, the Hungarian nanny, thinks of him, and so on and so forth.
In "Capital," social relationships wither or lurch, obliviousness abounds, and the one thing sure to get people up and moving is "the currents of money on which much of London seemed to float." Roger is so fixated on the size of his pay (could his year-end bonus be ... a million pounds?) and Arabella so devoted to its extravagant expenditure, that when Roger asks Arabella, "Where are the children?," her answer comes as small surprise: "I don't know. How should I know? Out somewhere."
"Capital" is a year in the life of the people on a street in the south of the city. The year is December 2007 to November 2008 — a period, financially speaking, that began well and ended poorly. The street is Pepys Road, where housing prices have climbed to astonishing heights and residents begin getting anonymous, creepy postcards saying: "We Want What You Have."
And the people? This is where the book gets big — not big as in hear ye now, this novel is important, but big in every way good, big in ambition and ideas and sweep while maintaining its wit and fizz. The people include a Zimbabwean refugee who writes parking tickets along the street; a Pakistani family that runs a shop on the street's corner, and a Senegalese teenager who moves in after signing on with a top soccer club.
Even with lives that feel pinched and small, Lanchester writes with a large and knowing heart. The vulnerability of Petunia, a dying woman who wants only to blend, resonates with the same force as the itchy energy of her grandson Smitty, an artist determined to shock.
Lanchester's cast of characters is so diverse that he's able to ping from one big subject to another: the Byzantine politics of asylum; the sacrifice of values in the fight against terrorism; a study of marriage as warfare; the mercenary nature of sport; the rot in the financial markets; and ruminations on aging and death and grieving.
Cultures clash and money perverts. Patrick Kamo, the father of the Senegalese teenager, walks a shopping district and struggles to comprehend the things people want: "lamps which did not look as if they would emit any light, shoes no woman could stand in, coats which would not keep anyone warm, chairs which had no obvious way to sit on them."
London, Lanchester writes, is "in thrall to the code of stuff."
Those creepy postcards keep coming, and then the postcards become vaguely threatening DVDs, and then the DVDs get replaced by something even more unsettling.
And all along, as relationships decay or revive (on occasion the fog lifts), "Capital" remains ever a joy to read.
Ken Armstrong: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Seattle Times reporter, he is the co-author of "Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity,"
winner of the 2011 Edgar Award
for best fact crime book.