Capital, by John Lanchester, Faber, £17.99, 592 pages
Although it is billed as “a post-crash, state of the nation novel”, is in fact set in the early stages of the crash, between December 2007 and November 2008. The main character, and by some distance the most interesting, is Roger Yount, a 40-year-old, Harrow-educated banker. He is the owner of 51 Pepys Road, Clapham and the Old Parsonage in Minchinhampton, Gloucestershire.
His wife Arabella is something of an airhead, who once read a book – this was perhaps a one-off – about women’s unique ability to multitask. Her vocation is spending money but, with the end-of-year bonus round coming up, Roger has no fears; he is expecting a bonanza of £1m in addition to his salary of £150,000, which Arabella describes as “frock money”. We, of course, sense that there may be trouble ahead. There are early reminders of Sherman McCoy in the air; indeed, Tom Wolfe’s phrase, “haemorrhaging money”, makes an appearance.
In general Roger likes to float above inconvenience and conflict; he is not a very active parent and his contact with his young boys, Joshua and Conrad, is amiable but detached. A nanny, Pilar, looks after them while Arabella is out pampering herself and Roger is at work, where he practises “managing upwards”, which involves flattering his boss Lothar, a “Cherman”.
Working directly under Roger is nerdy and troubled Mark, who understands the maths, which Roger doesn’t. To Mark, Roger is a relic of an earlier time in the City: he is “a pointlessly tall, contentlessly smooth, public-school twat, a bluffer and chancer and lightweight, doing a job which Mark could do a thousand times better”. The office scenes are wholly convincing: it is one of the strengths of this novel that John Lanchester is effortlessly familiar with the workings of the City. Roger is summoned by Lothar to discover the size of his bonus: it is a humiliating £30,000. The crunch has truly started.
When he gets home he finds that Arabella has absented herself over Christmas just as the nanny is about to go back to Spain. Arabella thinks he should be taught a lesson: “He has no idea, no idea of the burden of actually looking after the children and the house.” Roger’s inept attempts at childcare are wonderfully comic but he manages by a stroke of luck to find a beautiful Hungarian nanny, Matya, on Christmas Eve, and she leaps into action so that he is free to get his revenge on Arabella by preparing a list of savage cuts in her expenditure.
It’s all going along nicely but Lanchester has ambitions of universality. The thread of the novel is Pepys Road in Clapham. “If you already lived there, you were rich. If you wanted to move there, you had to be rich. It was the first time in history this had ever been true.” Pepys Road is being subjected to what might be an art attack or some sort of popular protest; mysterious notes, reading “We Want What You Have” are mailed and later sinister DVDs appear on doormats.
A variety of characters have a connection with the road: they include a family of Pakistanis, the Kamals, who run the corner shop; Petunia Howe, the last survivor of pre-gentrification; a Zimbabwean traffic warden, Quentina, the “most hated person” in the road; the jobbing builder Zbigniew, from Poland. New to the road is a 17-year-old Senegalese football prodigy, Freddy Kamo, and his father Patrick, a policeman. Freddy has recently been signed by a major London football club.
Lanchester’s intention is obviously to create a sprawling, Dickensian cast of characters, all related in some way to this corner of Clapham, all adding something to a rich picture of London in its money frenzy, and ever-changing multicultural gavotte. So Petunia Howe, the last prole, turns out to be the grandmother of Smitty, an artist whose anonymity is his principal asset (as with Banksy). Smitty has an assistant, Parker French, whom he loathes, and we learn a bit about him too, as we do about Detective Inspector Mill, who is deputed to look into the We Want What You Have harassment.
The trouble is that there is something weightless about many of the characters. Because they exist to add verisimilitude and universality, a kind of frenzied plate-spinning is required, as Lanchester visits all of them rather frantically in turn, like a man looking for his car keys; we find ourselves wondering what some of them are actually contributing to the story. Yes, they all have a connection to Pepys Road, and yes, they all have a connection to money, but they are curiously disconnected from the Younts who really are the story, nor are they drawn with the same precision. For instance, when one of the Kamal brothers is arrested we are not remotely surprised, because we have guessed, hundreds of pages earlier – when his jihadi acquaintance Iqbal turns up at the mosque – that young Shahid’s role in the plot is to get into trouble with MI5. Ah, the Muslim question.
I have admired Lanchester’s writing for years, so I pondered what may have gone wrong here. I came to the conclusion that all the characters needed to be central to the story of the Younts, rather than incidental habitués of the same street and, in a sense, of the same book. The result of this distance is that the reader doesn’t really care about the peripheral characters; they seem at times to be obstructing a perfectly good – even brilliant – story.
Justin Cartwright is author of ‘Other People’s Money’ (Bloomsbury)