OUR CULTURE LOVES A STORY about winning through raw determination, against all odds, almost as much as it detests a story about losing due to a complex, systemic failure of epic proportions. This might help to explain why the past decade’s wild fluctuation in global markets and property values, caused largely by the greed and blundering of the financial industry and its regulators, is stubbornly portrayed by investment professionals as yet another natural cycle of market corrections. While someone with even a glancing familiarity with the recklessness and willful suspension of disbelief behind the 2008 financial crisis should have the power to reduce the strongest proponents of capitalism to a state of learned helplessness, investors continue to be categorized as “wise” or “unwise” in our popular financial fairy tales. Naturally, it behooves our leaders and financiers to portray the elaborate, hidden dance of opportunism and hysteria behind the markets as something inherently steady and logical. Yet, in the wake of Enron and the global economic meltdown, the most deterministic storytelling can’t allay the suspicion that we live at the mercy of mad gods, firing lightning bolts at the earth just to watch them flash in the night sky.
This mood of uncertainty forms the backdrop of John Lanchester’s new novel, Capital, where we discover a buzzing hive of characters from every class and ethnicity, plucked from the streets of London and molded into the sorts of flinty, self-deluded types that would make Jonathan Franzen proud. Our story centers on the inhabitants of Pepys Road, a London street lined with desirable three-story houses whose values are ballooning in the years before the global market crash. In the novel, the street’s residents run the gamut from a football star to shopkeepers to an aging widow to an investment banker and his wife, but the rapidly expanding value of their real estate ties them together. Or, as Lanchester puts it, “Britain had become a country of winners and losers, and all the people in the street, just by living there, had won.”
Whether or not this victory on paper translates into happiness is another matter, of course. After all, money—real or imagined—has a certain way of undermining our values and muddling our priorities. We witness this confusion the most vividly in Capital’s Roger Yount, an investment banker who barely seems to know his wife or children, and spends weekends mucking about in the countryside with cartoonishly smug blowhards in tall rubber boots. Roger’s wife, Arabella, offers more of the same upper-crust befuddlement. She stokes her contempt for her absent husband from within a predictable bubble of child-rearing (aided by nannies), redecorating (aided by contractors), and spa visits (aided by ointment-bearing attendants). In contrast, the Younts’ elderly neighbor Petunia Howe is uncomfortable with the modern service economy, after a lifetime spent doing things for herself. When her daughter Mary arranges to have groceries delivered to her house, Petunia is a little disappointed. Lanchester writes, “Petunia would much, much rather have had Mary, or Mary’s son Graham who lived in London, come and do her shopping with her, and give her some help in person; but that option hadn’t been offered.”
Lest the inherent alienation of life in this wealthy city is lost on the reader, more stereotypes are being forged into cautionary tales by the minute: Senegalese soccer sensation Freddy Kamo has just arrived at Pepys Road, thrilled to be starting his lucrative career as a Premier League footballer, but his father, Patrick, secretly dislikes the cold weather and the cold people of London, and badly misses his wife and children back home in Senegal. Zbigniew, the Younts’ Polish contractor, also misses home, and is working steadily to make enough money to return to Poland and go into business with his father. In the meantime, Zbigniew lives an ascetic existence and finds “the grotesque costliness of more or less everything” in London a little disturbing. Ahmed Kamal, a Pakistani shopkeeper, believes that his hard work will secure a promising future for his family, but his determination is undermined by his devout brother Usman and his slacker brother Shahid, neither of whom shares his work ethic or his embrace of such middle-class dreams.
Money doesn’t solve everything, you see. Modern urban life conspires to keep these characters—rich or poor or somewhere in between—drifting along in their own separate worlds of bitterness, longing, and dread. Just in case Capital’s title and its herd of characters with money-related fixations haven’t pounded home this central message yet, the residents of Pepys Road have recently begun receiving postcards in the mail that say “We Want What You Have.” The postcards include photographs of the residents’ houses, taken by a creepy man in a hoodie (the hoodie serving once again as shorthand for “ne’er-do-well”). Local residents are confused by these mysterious mailings. Petunia, who is facing the end of her life with more than a little melancholy, wonders, “Why on earth would anybody want what she had?”
Such heavy existential questions should feel right at home in an ambitious novel like Capital. Here, Lanchester has served up the sort of weighty (figuratively and literally), culturally focused tome on The Way We Live Now that’s designed to set literary agents’ and publishers’ hearts aflutter. (Publishers may not embrace losers or complex, systemic failures, but they do love epic proportions.) While it’s no small feat to paint the toxic effects of high capitalism in human terms, Lanchester—an accomplished journalist and novelist whose most recent work of nonfiction, I.O.U. (2010), is a highly entertaining explanation of the causes and effects of the 2008 global market collapse—seems more than qualified for the job.
Thus, after navigating the stereotypical characters and predictable plot twists that dominate the first half of Capital (the banking blowhard has developed warm feelings for his nanny! the slacker Pakistani has allowed a jihadist to move in with him!), it’s easy to hope that this surging flood of cautionary tales will serve some discernible higher purpose. Once we meet the Banksy-like installation artist Smitty, his petulant assistant Parker, Parker’s girlfriend Daisy, the traffic warden Quentina, and the detective Mill, we start to suspect that, instead of remaining so absorbed in their own thoughts, desires, and dreams, this vast array of characters will begin to clash openly, or to console each other, or maybe they’ll be galvanized by some spectacle or tragedy. Perhaps there will be some hidden, disconcerting message behind the postcards; perhaps they’ll turn out to be the work of some thoughtful provocateur, rather than a haphazard prankster. Maybe Smitty and his assistant will come to blows, or Mill will confront Shahid’s jihadist roommate, or Daisy will discover Parker’s secrets, or Arabella will leave Roger once and for all. Or maybe, even if no one learns a thing in the end, we’ll emerge with some deeper understanding of why they didn’t, of why they’re doomed to a life of quiet rage or entitled, unenlightened mediocrity. At the very least, this central mystery involving postcards will surely whip everyone into a white-hot state of frenzied disillusionment and despair. And when we read those last few words, on page 528, we’ll sigh and say, “Yes. That’s exactly how modern life feels in the shadow of our endlessly promising, endlessly destructive global economy.”
But as the characters of Capital themselves awkwardly struggle to demonstrate, ambition doesn’t presuppose success. The problem with taking on a story about a complex, systemic failure of epic proportions is that it requires the author to translate something diffuse and complicated into a coherent dramatic format. Lanchester falls fairly short of the mark there. Even when he takes on the financial industry itself—via Roger and his deputy, Mark—the results are skin-deep, and curiously devoid of insights into the pathologies of finance or the motives of its most reckless players. This dearth of illustrative scenarios is especially confounding because Lanchester supplied so many illuminative observations in this vein in I.O.U. Likewise, including a Conceptual artist and a jihadist in the story has a way of inflating expectations, and resigning them to loom as shadow figures without much impact on the action doesn’t exactly deliver the promised punch. Most important, though, if the author injects suspense via a mystery, that mystery should probably bring about some kind of a climax, and then resolve. This is an inconvenient side effect of making your readers hoist a five-hundred-plus-page tome onto their laps: They tend to expect that one or two big, important things will happen therein, and that those big, important things might loosely cohere with the grandiose verbiage of the jacket copy.
If Capital does have a higher purpose, perhaps it’s to signal to readers and publishers alike that it’s time for this extended swoon over the big, important novel to end. There’s one chapter in particular in which the book’s potential as a smaller, more intimate novel shines through the clutter: When Mary methodically cleans Petunia’s house instead of sitting still with her dying mother, and then steps into the courtyard to smoke a cigarette and worry instead of appreciating the overgrown, fragrant garden that her mother has painstakingly cultivated over several decades, the author beautifully captures the human tendency to turn away from the richness of everyday life. It’s a shame that this moment is crowded out by so much portentous meandering. Because no matter how gracefully great novelists like F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Updike explored the subtle folds of society’s discontents, they kept their primary focus on the struggles of one vulnerable, flawed soul. We don’t need to become acquainted with a whole country of winners and losers, after all. We just need to know one.
Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine and the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead, 2010).