Alan's Reviews > Capital

Capital by John Lanchester
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Jul 25, 12

Read in January, 2012

I enjoy titles which have layers of meaning. I enjoy the cleverness and I appreciate the sign-posting they provide so I can make sure that I don't miss a thread woven into the story. As layered titles go, John Lanchester's Capital isn't particularly difficult to penetrate: there is Capital as Money, and there is Capital as London and the fact that, to Lanchester, the first defines the second adds an admirable tidiness to the layers. All in all, it's a good title. The only problem is that it's been given to the wrong book, for Lanchester's novel betrays both readings.

Capital is an infuriating book, superficial, glib and shallow. It mirrors prevailing opinions and prejudices, but not prevailing spirit. It is filled with stereotypes but few characters and no people. It doesn't even scratch the surface of what makes London the city it is; it records a pulse but no heartbeat.

The depiction of Finance, from Roger Yount's dashed bonus hopes to the collapse of Pinker Lloyd, is at best simplistic, at worst childish and unrealistic. The connection back to London is through a single front door - No 51 Pepys Road - behind which lives a family carefully constructed to conform with our most obvious preconceptions.

Yet, Lanchester's prologue astutely observes that there is a wider connection, a shift in the community's perceptions and values tied to the infectious heart of greed and aspiration. Sadly, the Prologue remains the best part of the book.

The microcosm device - a single street in London, Pepys Road - falls far short of its intent. Lanchester attempts to overcome the weaknesses of such an unrepresentative device by including a selection of peripheral characters who have a recurring relationship with the street: the builder, the traffic warden, the nanny and an assortment of relatives. But the links are too tenuous, too fragile. Often the link is made simply through an event rather than through the complex social connections that knit a city together. We are given the strands of wool but never the pattern.

The drama of community lies not in its connections, but in its dependencies and the conflict between what is valued and what is believed to be valuable.

It would take far more time than I wish to spend to write in detail of all the things that frustrated and irritated me about this book: from the weak plot resolution; its disjointed, episodic structure that reads like a series of newspaper observations; the deliberate pandering to topical public opinion in place of deeper analysis; the technical flaws and the improbable and implausible plot developments.

Capital is a book that touches on many issues but fails to go to the added trouble of exploring any of them. It doesn't do London justice nor does it do justice to the profound impact that the banshees of Finance and Fear have had on us all.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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David "It records a pulse but no heartbeat" - that's a nice line, and a perfect summary of what's wrong with this book.


Alan David wrote: ""It records a pulse but no heartbeat" - that's a nice line, and a perfect summary of what's wrong with this book."

Thank you, David. I wanted to like this book and tried very hard to do so.


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