The first thing to say about John Lanchester is that a sizeable number of econ-omic illiterates have him to thank for whatever portion of their sanity they managed to hang on to when the banking system went south in the late 2000s. His journalism in the London Review of Books and his book Whoops! explained roughly what was going on in terms that even a humanities graduate could understand. Capital attempts an allegorical portrait of the smoke during those turbulent times.
The book is a plausible portrait of one (fictional) street in Clapham, a popular south London "village" where a spacious but fairly hideous Victorian house can command a price approaching a hundred times the United Kingdom's median annual income. The denizens of this street include Roger Yount, a nice but dim investment banker (in truth, neither especially dim nor especially nice) and his ghastly wife, Arabella; a newsagent, Ahmad Kamal, and Rohinka, his delicious one; a Senegalese footballing prodigy; and the octogenarian Petunia Howe, the only aboriginal resident, contemplating death in the house where she was born. The richer inhabitants attract the professional attentions of, variously, a lawyer, a Polish builder, a squadron of child-care providers and a Zimbabwean traffic warden (Quentina Mkfesi, BSc, MSc — in some ways the most beguiling character in the book). They also have the normal human appurtenances in the way of families, friends, colleagues, etc.
From the outset, there is trouble in Paradise. A scene-setting prologue seems at first sight like a rip-off of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, but soon takes a subtly darker turn, rendering the houses in the street as old gods from an H.P. Lovecraft story. Then we zoom abruptly down to the humans within.
It is almost Christmas 2007. The banker's bonus is small. His wife is plotting a solo minibreak. A diffident hate campaign against the residents is under way. Gently and slowly, Lanchester tightens the screws, alternating hope and despair, flitting between protagonists neatly and dexterously. New characters are introduced: a successful, terrible street artist called Smitty, the newsagent's brothers Usman and the hapless jihadi-turned-web designer Shahid. Someone at the bank is making trades on colleagues' accounts, and is "building up a position". There is a reticence, an austerity about the book that I very much liked. The obvious-seeming parallels with Dickens should not be inked in too heavily. Like Dickens, Lanchester makes some of his names work pretty hard (Shahid means "martyr"; "Smitty", "Quentina Mkfesi" and "Arabella Yount" could scarcely be said to box below their weight, either); but he lacks Dickens's nervous reliance on the grotesque. Lanchester has the brains to relate the particular to the general; the ruthlessness to make bad things happen to good people (though good people are in short supply in Capital); the steadiness of hand to draw unpalatable conclusions (poor immigrants really do despise affluent white Londoners; some of our neighbours really do want to blow us up); and, crucially, the courage to bore his readers a little, at times, rather than leave them underinformed.
This impulse to inform also tends to inoculate Lanchester from the realist writer's deformation professionelle, an urge to moralise. Yet some of the book's "lessons" — don't trust your juniors, don't seek physical intimacy outside your own ethnic and socio-economic group — seem a shade limited. But Lanchester is not really doing "analysis" in the Marxist sense. The noises we hear emanating from the world of money are not directly responsible for the bad things that happen to our characters; these are the result of personal wickedness, arcane coincidence, institutional stupidity or — realistically enough — dumb luck.