Why London defies attempts to write the definitive novel

Many writers have tried but is it possible to capture this vast, vibrant city in a novel?

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Novels, especially urban novels, are cartographic as well as imaginative endeavours. James Joyce famously said that with Ulysses he wanted “to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book”. London, like Dublin, is a city that has been constructed in and through literature. But few London writers have presumed to be able to contain the city in its entirety in the way that Joyce did. In fiction, as in life, London is often characterised by its uncontainable excess. It is for this reason that London writers have been motivated by two often mutually exclusive impulses: to memorialise the city or to destroy it.

Of all London novelists, Charles Dickens probably got closest to the Joycean vision of novel-as-map. This is partly because he invented the very idea of what Victorian London — which is to say modern London — is. “Dickensian” may be a term that has now been claimed by the heritage industry, but Dickens’ characters walk down recognisable streets: you can follow their journeys in the pages of the A-Z.

His novels, like the “poverty maps” of Charles Booth, the philanthropist and social researcher, or the physician John Snow’s charts of cholera outbreaks in Soho (which enabled him to trace the source of infection to a pump in Broad Street, proving that cholera was waterborne), were in part attempts to map and therefore expose the dark secrets of 19th-century London. Yet they also portray a city that is ultimately unknowable, a place that inevitably resists the reductive imposition of a single novelist’s vision.

In her last novel, Wise Children (1991), Angela Carter described London as “two cities separated by a river”, and London novels have always been as much about what divides Londoners as what unites them. In the early years the divisions were often economic. Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) — a fictitious account of a year in the life of the plague-ridden city and in many ways the first London novel — portrays a city divided by wealth and fear. Fearful of spreading the plague by handling money, the unnamed narrator describes how people would pay for goods by dropping coins into pots of vinegar to sterilise them. In 1625 William Harvey had described the circulation of blood; 100 years later monetary circulation had become a metaphor for infection and uncleanliness.

Urban anxieties: while the visions of Richard Jefferies and JG Ballard were apocalyptic, John Lanchester took a more traditional, Dickensian approach

The city is still, increasingly, divided along monetary lines, and this surely is one of the reasons finance has been such an attractive theme to many London writers. Martin Amis’s finest London novel Money (1984) — part of a loose trilogy of that also includes London Fields (1989) and The Information (1995) — is in part a book about the alienation brought about by economic inequality. It is also a hymn to hyper-consumption, detailing the excesses of ad-man anti-hero John Self, a drug, porn and junk food addicted “semi-literate alcoholic”. The inequalities Amis described in Money have only accelerated since, as has Londoners’ addiction to conspicuous consumption.

A countervailing impulse to the mapping of London’s invisible borders and dividing lines, both economic and social, is to do away with them by annihilating the city. Richard Jefferies’ After London (1885) is perhaps the earliest in a long line of apocalyptic London visions. A work of proto-science fiction, After London describes the re-wilding of the city after the fall of civilisation. Yet his is no pastoral idyll: Jefferies paints a gloomy picture of the barbaric society that emerges to replace the fallen world.

In the 1960s, in part fuelled by the existential anxieties of nuclear war, apocalyptic London narratives proliferated. Scarred by his experiences in a Japanese internment camp (and appalled by the sullen barrenness of postwar England) JG Ballard sought to wipe London from the map in his fiction over and over again. In his first novel, The Wind from Nowhere (1961), he blew it down; in The Drowned World (1962) he flooded it.

Ballard’s destructive impulses were not only architectural but psychological. In Crash (1973) a group of celebrity-obsessed voyeurs stage car crashes for their own sexual gratification. In High Rise (1975) the residents of a block of flats descend into civil unrest. People wage class war on the communal staircases. They eat each other’s dogs and sexually molest one another in the lifts.

In Concrete Island (1974) an architect crashes his car and is trapped on a piece of scrubland in the middle of a motorway intersection. Quite explicitly, the novel represents a return to the world of Defoe’s money-mindedness. It is a parody of the self-sufficient Protestant capitalism that Defoe had celebrated in Robinson Crusoe (1719).

For Ballard, who lived a quiet suburban life in Shepperton, London was already a dead city: an echo chamber of 19th-century architecture, habits and manners. His novels are thought experiments, and have proved to be remarkably prescient ones. “I regard the city as a semi-extinct form,” he once said. “London is basically a 19th-century city. And the habits of mind appropriate to the 19th century, which survive into the novels set in London in the 20th century, are not really appropriate to understanding what is going on today.”

He was right, of course: in an important sense, London — considered a single city united by the shared experiences and interests of its inhabitants — no longer truly exists, if it ever did. Londoners have become like the citizens in China Miéville’s The City & the City (2009), a noirish thriller in which the residents of two different cities — each with their own distinct cultural practices and bureaucratic institutions — occupy the same topographical space. Like the inhabitants of “Beszel” and its twin city of “Ul Qoma”, Londoners are trained from birth to “unsee” — to studiously ignore — one another as they navigate the city. It is a city in which we live, in the writer Raoul Vaneigem’s phrase, “alone together”.

It is perhaps for this reason that attempts to write epic and unifying London novels, in which the author is both cartographer and God, can no longer really work. John Lanchester’s Capital (2012) was a valiant if failed attempt to provide a total map of the contemporary city, telling a story of wealth inequality through the eyes of a cast of different characters which was Dickensian in its range. If the novel fails, it fails because the project is too vast: London’s accents are now too distinct, its range of experiences too diverse, to be contained within a single book. The city can no longer be tamed by language, if it ever could.

The time of the great synoptic London novel is over, for there is no London any more. Instead there are many Londons: multiple cities separated from one another by money or its lack; by language or religion or life experience. London has become a city of fragments, and the best writing about it reflects this fragmentation. The techniques of the novelist have been reappropriated by writers such as Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd and Will Self: the walker-observers of psychogeography, committed to preserving the crumbling edifice they find themselves the inhabitants of. London nowadays seems better served by those who do not seek to impose pattern on the disorder, but to document it on its own terms.

Jon Day is a lecturer in English at King’s College London and author of ‘Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier’

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