Alex Preston 20 February 2012 - 12:17pm
John Lanchester’s big, bold new novel, Capital, like another recent doorstop, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, takes for its hero an inanimate object, in this case a road somewhere in south London.
In four sections, progressing from the height of the property boom in 2007 to the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008, Lanchester follows the inhabitants of this ordinarily extraordinary London road. The cast is huge, and keeps growing as the book progresses. There is something heroic in this as if, with each new entrant, Lanchester is daring us not to care for the latest character. That we do, and care deeply, is a sign of his great skill as an author. He has that rare gift of presenting the lives of those who exist at the margins of London life in a manner that is enormously touching whilst never feeling patronising or invasive.
The capital of the title is, of course, London, but it is also the “currents of money on which most of London seemed to float.” Lanchester’s last book, Whoops! was an impressive journalistic unpicking of the credit crisis and the financial world features heavily in Capital. From Roger Yount, who works for the fictional Pinker Lloyd bank, and his spendthrift wife, to Freddy Kano, a Senegalese football prodigy lured to London by the riches of (we presume) Chelsea, to the Banksyesque Smitty riding a wave of art-world money, the characters in the novel are defined by their financial status. Property prices on the road have rocketed during the boom years, leading to a mish-mash of social classes, a setting ripe for the deployment of Lanchester’s gently effective humour.
That the road should be named for London’s famous chronicler, Pepys, gives us a clue to what sort of novel Lanchester wants Capital to be: a big, old-fashioned, state-of-the-nation affair. In this it has much in common with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which attempted to hold a mirror to America in the age of Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition and rampant capitalism, but ended up seeming curmudgeonly and Victorian.
Capital is also strikingly, sometimes rather unsettlingly, similar in its ambitions and structure to Sebastian Faulks’ A Week in December: both engage brilliantly with the financial markets, both range across a disparate group of Londoners whose lives overlap in fascinating ways, both present footballers in the big-money Premiership, both attempt rather clumsily to reflect the Internet and textspeak, and in both books the least successful sections deal with the experience of British Muslims.
But where Lanchester’s novel excels is in eking out the poignancies of everyday life, the moments of pathos and wistful identification which, far more than the rather flat whodunit which threads through the book, keep us turning the pages. Lanchester’s style is easy and polished, the voice of a Londoner. He is predictably clear on the complexities of the financial world and quite brilliant on children. And perhaps this is why Capital manages to be the novel that Freedom never quite is: it is magnificently human, with a warmth that Franzen’s picky, desiccated prose never achieves.
The philosophy that underlies the book – that every life, if you look at it closely enough, has a beautiful complexity, an extraordinary nexus of relationships – is hardly new. But Lanchester’s ambitious, engaging novel will nonetheless move and amuse readers far beyond the M25. This year’s Man Booker winner? I wouldn’t bet against it.
Alex Preston is the author of The Revelations, published by Faber.