Book review: 'Capital' an uneven tale of the winners and losers in a London lane
British writer John Lanchester's last work, "I.O.U.," won acclaim for being an accessible and incredibly entertaining explanation of the 2008 global financial crisis. His fictional follow-up charts a similar time period, and once again, Mr. Lanchester shows off his impressive wit.
Rather than focusing on the macro themes, however, Mr. Lanchester digs deep into the grid. In this case, he dives into the goings-on of one South London street, Pepys Road. The real estate boom has transformed the place "as if by magic" from middle class to rich.
As Mr. Lanchester makes clear, "Britain had become a country of winners and losers, and all the people in the street, just by living there, had won."
That's not to say that every character in "Capital" lives the Pepys Road high life. Many just work there before retiring to the city's less tony quadrants. Mr. Lanchester incorporates a diverse lot. There's the requisite rich banker and his vapid wife, of course. But there's also a Senegalese footballer, a Zimbabwean refugee-come-meter maid, a Polish handyman, a Hungarian nanny, a Pakistani shopkeeping family, a middle-class biddy real estate hold-out, a lawyer, a would-be terrorist and an underground artist who seems modeled on the elusive British street artist Banksy.
"Capital" takes us behind these secluded walls, but the grass isn't always greener -- even if it's manicured by a full-time gardener. A series of vaguely menacing postcards keep pricking the comfortable Pepys Road cocoon. The cards have a strange message: "We Want What You Have."
What most upsets residents about these weird postcards? These threats could decrease property values, of course.
From Evelyn Waugh to Nancy Mitford, Britain has a long literary tradition of chronicling the lives of the upper crust, and "Capital" comfortably fits within the pantheon. Mr. Lanchester keeps the material fresh with sharp observations, and his early sections crackle.
Still, as the novel progressed, my main compliment and criticism of "Capital" became one and the same: The book impressively approximates the undulations of city life, but at an eventual cost to any central plot. Sure, "Capital" teems with action, but like a real city, each character is largely segregated to a separate sphere. The many frayed narratives never fuse, and they come to weigh down the book. By the end, the characters were so wrapped up in their own lives that even they stopped caring about the "We Want What You Have" postal who-done-it.
It doesn't give much away to tell that, by the end, many of the characters leave Pepys Road, whether due to death, deportation or financial ruin. The unfortunate thing is that I was rarely sad to see them go.
First Published July 8, 2012 12:00 am