Urban Capture: Justin Quinn on John Lanchester’s Capital
by John Lanchester
Hardback, Faber and Faber, 2012
592 pages, ISBN:978-0571234608, £17.99
How do you capture a city? GoogleEarth is a start, if you don’t mind missing pieces (for instance, about 10% of Berlin’s buildings are blurred out) as well as the perpetual sunny day in all the shots. Psychogeographic writers might try to catch it by following a map of Tokyo to get from the Panthéon to Montmartre, recording the obstacles and trouvailles along the way. Social realists wheel a plot onto the stage; the modernist will choose a myth; Tom McCarthy will take an ontological doodle to its logical end. In the social-realist mode, White Teeth and The Line of Beauty, for examples, are two wide-ranging portraits of London. They pleased many readers with their detailed portraiture, their occasional humour, but perhaps above all with their deployment of these aspects in a larger urban panorama. They give us a way to understand ourselves, not from the inside, but as social beings, banging up against each other in beds, cars, public transport, etc. In his late phase Henry James, fatigued by Victorian plentitude, starved us of external details to concentrate on the mind; on the other hand, novelists such as Zadie Smith, Alan Hollinghurst and John Lanchester tell us how we get on with each other in the close quarters of a city.
The other meaning of Lanchester’s title is more elusive. Money moves us all through mezzanines of the personal, institutional and national. Most of the time we can’t keep up with it, and so are grateful for a structure, whether aesthetic or otherwise, that lets us understand it. A novelist might follow the way money flows through the grips of various characters in order to comprehend their lives: it can become a way to decode the world. Honorable attempts include Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, which sets its characters dancing around a Ponzi scheme, and Wharton’s The Age of Innocence which parallels Newland Archer’s undoing with the panic of 1873. Wharton drew on Trollope’s book, especially for her portrait of the failed financier Julius Beaufort, but pushed money matters into the background, as though anxious not to disturb the decorum of her drawing-room drama.
Lanchester, over the past years, has indicated that he was researching the world of finance so he could put it in a novel. Its title notwithstanding, Capital isn’t that book, as it’s thin on all those arcane acronyms that he wrote about so well two years ago in Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No-One Can Pay. Perhaps it just can’t be done. Explanation of financial instruments brings on mild catalepsy in most people and so a novelist introduces them at his peril. He discusses these challenges, in the Financial Times, concluding that ‘there are unlikely to be many novels that describe in detail the modern world of finance’.
George Orwell identified Dickens’ great shortcoming as his inability to comprehend the British Empire; arguably, a portrait of contemporary London that doesn’t deal with its status as a financial capital of global importance is similarly flawed. Lanchester covers that base, however, with the figure of Roger Yount, an investment banker of the old school who doesn’t understand the maths that has overtaken his profession. The scandal that he gets involved in avoids financial instruments, and is more a matter of security breach, and thus a very tangible drama of a schlemiel creeping around an office trying to find Yount’s password. Having thought the novel would be bristling with hieroglyphics such as CDS, RAROC, CDO, S and P, VaR and SPV, I first felt as though I had been let off a particularly tricky science test. But then I began to wonder whether it’s because the teacher himself couldn’t set the questions. Lanchester has heard such demurrals before and counters:
I could put my research into specifics, which demand explanation, into the non-fiction, and concentrate in my novel on the human truths, which don’t need explaining. Greed and fear and obliviousness are things we all understand. In fiction, I could write about them without having characters say, ‘Remind me, Daphne, what exactly is a synthetic credit default swap?’
Obviously, only a tyro would try such a cheap line of dialogue, but merely because such material is hard to manoeuvre in a novel doesn’t mean that one should give up so very soon. Among other things, ignorance of financial markets prevents us from being good citizens. Journalism and non-fiction play an important role in such civic education, but the novel can bring us even further (Dickens knew that A Christmas Carol would have more social and political impact than any tract he could write). We need ways to think about financial abstractions in dramatic terms in order to help us act–or not, as the case may be. As someone who feels his brain turn to head cheese any time such matters are explained I came to Capital hoping for another point of access. Perhaps the expectation was unfair, like supposing that every poem you read must change your life.
Instead the book provides rich and varied social portraiture, and this ultimately ensures the credibility of his fictional London. Lanchester covers a range of ethnicities and classes, each giving him a different kind of access to the urban texture–from a teenage football hopeful, recently arrived from Senegal, to an aged respectable white woman traditional enough to be called Petunia. His characters are frogmarched from census categories (how else to explain such a spectrum?), but Lanchester delightfully releases them from cliché, even as he knits them ever tighter into his plot line. These people are part of the life of the city, if not the City, and one admires the even-handedness and skill with which he switches between such diverse characters. A few reviewers thought some characterisations were weak, but such a criticism doesn’t, in my view, stand up to examination. The mental textures, the biographical backgrounds and the motivations are all dealt with masterfully. These are people you half-expect to see on Pepys Road (the novel’s theatre of operations) when you skate down it on Google Street View. One begins to type the address in the search box, only to remember that Lanchester has thought the whole thing up.