Patrick's Reviews > Capital

Capital by John Lanchester
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's review
Mar 31, 2012

liked it

As a keen reader of John Lanchester’s non-fiction writing on the financial crisis, I was expecting this to be a kind of fictional manifestation of all the carefully researched and crafted perspectives that went into those essays. I was also expecting something which is basically a realistic multi-faceted novel in the high Victorian mode -- and I got that much -- but I was surprised to find little trace of Lanchester the Economist in ‘Capital’. Though a prominent character is a wealthy banker caught up in a financial scandal, there’s hardly anything explicit about the credit crunch in this novel. While it frequently looms in the background, practically all of the inhabitants of this Capital are touched by it only indirectly. For the most part they are too busy getting on with their work to think much about it.

What we have is a view of London in the early years of the twentieth century. As a lifelong resident of that city, I think it gets the feel of the place pretty right. Perhaps what I liked most about the novel is the furniture: not the actual sofas and tables and chairs (though Lanchester does have a keen eye for the endless crap on which the rich blow their wealth) but the acres and acres of stuff which makes up this world, the concrete details which ring true to me as a Londoner. The author’s style doesn’t ask much of the reader, but it is more subtle than may first appear. The reader is guided gently from one event to the next by a free indirect discourse which ‘shows’ even while the book is doing an awful lot of ‘telling’. There’s not much in the way of purple prose here – for the most part it’s defined by a brisk, economical and character-driven mode of writing.

But there is a problem with these characters. As some reviewers have pointed out, there’s a sense in which they are already over-familiar from the headlines of the past few years – the absurdly rich and faintly stupid banker, the Zimbabwean refugee who becomes a traffic warden, the Pakistani family housing a devout Muslim, the weary but practical Polish builder. You kind of know what’s going to happen to these people because there are certain things that must happen to them for this to be a certain kind of good-hearted liberal novel. And, for the most part, those things sure do happen!

This in itself wouldn’t be such a problem if the characters were all equally well-written. Yet I couldn’t shake the sense that the author found some easier to write than others. The sequences featuring Roger (the banker) Yount are simply more expressive than those featuring Freddy Kamo or Quentina Mkfesi because the world of the absurdly rich white Englishman is something Lanchester feels he knows well and of which he is in full command. But he doesn’t really know what it feels like to be a seventeen year old football prodigy flown from a relatively poor existence in Senegal to sudden fame and fortune in London any more than he knows what it feels like to be a refugee from a despotic regime living an essentially illegal and unrecognised existence in the same city. As a result, those passages fall somewhat flat.

This book has got some pretty mean-spirited reviews in the press, and to an extent I feel that’s inevitable; whenever a prominent author writes a heavily promoted Big Book based on the State of the Nation, they’re pretty much asking for a critical drubbing. The suspicion that an author is deliberately writing for posterity irks many readers. That aspect doesn’t bother me so much – in fact I think it’s rather refreshing to see an author overreach his grasp in creating something which tries so hard to establish a sense of the spirit of our times, and yet falls so short in realising its ambition to be a definitive and all-encompassing work of fiction.
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