Michael Boxall's Reviews > Capital

Capital by John Lanchester
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's review
Apr 13, 2012

it was amazing

Fragrant harbors: the novels of John Lanchester

There's an intelligence and humanity about John Lanchester's novels which make them profoundly satisfying. Even when the central character is a murderous monster, Lanchester portrays him with such erudition and verbal dexterity—including, but not limited to, cadenza flourishes of 176-or-more-word sentences—that I could no more stop reading than take my eyes off a high-wire walker. They can be funny, too: the rich but incompetent banker-father's Christmas in hell, at which he is left alone to look after two infants dumped on him by his vengeful wife, is a masterpiece of droll humour. I read all four of them within the space of ten days.

The banker-father appears in Capital, the most recent and the one which got me started. A sprawling 527-pager, its sweep and London setting and variegated cast of characters summon up the ghost of Dickens. It's not so much a novel as a series of interlinked stories, held together by Pepys Road, the spine from which narratives poke like mismatched ribs. There's a sulphurous whiff of Hugo or Balzac or Dostoyevsky in the underlying theme: money. In Capital it appears and disappears in large part by luck. Property owners in Pepys Road are propelled willy-nilly to vertiginous riches by the rocket-like rise of house prices, from thousands of pounds to tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, then millions and multiple millions—an experience Lanchester likens to “being in a casino at which you are a guaranteed winner.” In a casino the only guaranteed winner is the casino itself. In the wider world it’s banks, which Lanchester thinks are the same thing.

For everyone else money is unpredictable in its ebbs and flows. The Polish builder who discovers half a million pounds behind a false wall wrestles with his conscience over whether to keep it, only to find it worthless. The young African soccer genius whose contract promises wealth beyond imagining loses it when he breaks a leg. The banker and his wife live comfortably beyond their means until the Isfahan is whipped away from under their well-shod feet.

Lanchester grew up partly in Hong Kong, and Fragrant Harbour tells of that city’s rise to wealth through the characters he writes about. Again, there are stories within the story, and its eventual shape is not quite what you might expect from the beginning. Why does that bitchy English journalist, drawn so well in her own words —“Not for nothing was the HQ of Jardines, a skyscraper with hundreds of porthole-like windows, known as the Palace of a Thousand Arseholes. If you worked for Wo, people would occasionally try to needle you at parties, until they saw clear evidence that you simply didn’t give a shit”—disappear from view for two hundred pages? Lanchester is clearly not the product of a writers’ workshop.

His skill and extensive savoir manger won him the Hawthornden Prize for his first novel, The Debt to Pleasure. The gift for getting characters to reveal themselves through their words had already reached dazzling heights. Tarquin Winot would be insufferable in the flesh; on the page he is mesmerising. Carapaced in snobbery, he looks down at the world with exquisite contempt. He is eating his way across France toward… what? Something nasty, that’s clear from the start. What unfortunate ends so many of the people around him have met. Winot is an artist, of a very peculiar sort. The epitome of archness, he could well be homosexual. Yet apart from eavesdropping on a pair of newlyweds, he shows little interest in sex of any kind. Not like his late brother, who was himself an artist and also a womaniser.

As would be Mr Phillips, given the chance. Mr Phillips is the eponymous hero of Lanchester’s second novel, another solitary odyssey. But while Winot has a destination, albeit veiled, Mr Phillips is trying to avoid something, not reach it. He, too, has had the rug pulled out from under him. On Friday his boss in the accounting department told him he’d lost his job (“not necessary to serve out full notice period … sense of gloom on these occasions … fresh fields and pastures new… better for all concerned …”).

Mr Phillips hasn’t told Mrs Phillips yet. We can only imagine what his weekend was like. But on Monday morning he puts on his suit and picks up his briefcase, as he has done for thirty years, and takes the train toward the City. He wanders around numbed by shock and taking refuge in sums, as befits a now ex-accountant. Sex is the first shelter, not having it but figuring out the likelihood of having it. Or of other people having it. Hard on the heels of sex comes death, computations of time taken to hit the water from various bridges. He doesn’t whine, or consciously brood over what has happened. He is somewhat comforted by the first person he meets, a publisher of pornographic magazines who has been in the same situation himself, “sacked for being drunk, for being chronically late, for being lazy, and then for planning to nick personnel and set up my own company—which was justified, incidentally. But then so were all the others.”

Mr Phillips’s family life has not been a roaring success: one Father’s Day he bought himself his own Best Dad in the World mug. He is not particularly heroic in any respect, not particularly determined, not particularly resourceful. Nor, until close to the end, does he appear particularly brave. Is it the suicidal impulse that makes him do something unexpected, take a stand? As with all of Lanchester’s characters, he leaves us with much to ponder.

A wonderfully warm and compassionate writer. I highly recommend all four.

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