Review of Capital by John Lanchester

John Lanchester. Capital: A Novel. New York, NY: Norton, 2013. 528 pp. $15.95, paper.

John Lanchester’s novel of and about the present moment, Capital, presents its readers with a seminal regional difference to digest, that of England vs. the U.S. This fissure conjures up the first sentence of Elizabeth Young’s critical milestone Shopping in Space: “American literature has never received a rapturous reception in Britain.” In that volume, Young also epigraphically quotes David Byrne (“Shopping is a feeling”) and Debord & Wolman (“Life can never be too disorienting”), influential worldviews which are applicable to the Lanchester book and to the contemporary cosmopolitan novel at large. Young was Brit-crit at its best, we’re all worse off without her, and one of her areas of utmost interest was how Americans perceive British fiction. David Mitchell, Alan Hollinghurst, Monica Ali, Tom McCarthy, Ian McEwan and others have helped foment some change, but for a while there it was rather polarized. Things were either stodgy and butlered or sneering and trainspotted, with the occasional mainstream leap into quidditch matches or lovelorn record store clerks or the diaries of thirtysomething women.

Deftly navigating the new intercontinental order, Lanchester’s novel has a texture of handsome gravitas, but its presentational mien is one of fragmentation. 107 chapters, most of four or five pages, suggest sprawl and compendia. This has led to innumerable Dickens comparisons, but the structure and voice, along with the multi-character “breadth of palette” approach, derive more from a text like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Consider the following Wikipedia quirk: the book’s entry is listed as “Winesburg, Ohio (a novel)” but the first line of description calls it “a 1919 short story cycle by the American author Sherwood Anderson.” It then goes on to identify George Willard as protagonist and moves forward from there.

Capital doesn’t really possess a protagonist, not even a nominal one, and if that sounds irksome, this isn’t the book for you. The most traditional story (the one Franzen or Ishiguro would’ve spotlighted) is that of Roger Yount and his tendentious marriage to wife Arabella. Like Anderson’s Elizabeth Willard, Roger is restless, desiring change. Like Tom Willard, he is concerned with the concept of success and how he is perceived. Like the mature George Willard, he is a bit old and a bit tired and a half-tragic figure in his own mind. It is from this segment of Lanchester’s narrative that we received a January 2012 excerpt in The New Yorker entitled “Expectations.” Roger and his family, his office job, his house, his nannies, they comprise the “this is the way we live now” portion of the novel. The now in question being the global economy in the midst of instability, recession, depression, collapse. Capital begins in December 2007 and concludes in November 2008. An angry young subordinate angles for Roger’s job. There’s a Margin Call moment. Lehman Brothers is ominously mentioned.

On the artistic front, in case you were thinking this is primarily a men-in-suits book, foregrounded amidst the multiplicity is a Banksy-esque guerrilla artist, Smitty (real name Graham), the grandson of another major character, Petunia Howe, an elderly remnant from a disappearing era. In his sections, Smitty is subversive in his approach and obsessive about denying access to his identity. In Petunia’s sections, Graham is the dutiful grandson who earnestly loves his nan. His mom/Petunia’s daughter? That’d be long-suffering “poor Mary,” who’s right out of a Mike Leigh film. This triad, with the artist at the center, offers a DeLillo-an portrait of the successful avant-garde within his more sedate surroundings. But unlike DeLillo and Leigh, Lanchester’s novel is more warm than cold, more immersive and humanistic than analytic and sociological. He is an author in command of his characters, and he is also very “close” to them, though it is difficult for the reader to achieve that same level of intimacy, if only because there are so many of them and because the narrative shifts its settings and emphases so often.

There is certainly a keen etiological eye for class and ethnicity which, along with Anderson’s micro-opus, may also call to mind Michael Apted’s landmark -Up documentaries, which trace the lives of a varied group of English citizens by recording their exploits at seven year intervals. In Capital, we have northward migration via Quentina, a Zimbabwean meter maid, a Lovely Rita for the immigrant era, and Freddy Kano, an émigré soccer star from Senegal along with his cautious ex-policeman father Patrick. The Eastern European front is personified in Zbigniew, a Polish carpenter whose sections are workmanlike, almost as if they were stand-alone stories, well-crafted miniatures about love, sex, and the loneliness of being perpetually away from the place you think of as home. He eventually finds something he’s not supposed to hidden behind a plaster wall (direct echoes of Elizabeth Willard at the end of Anderson’s “Death”) and later falls for one of the Younts’ babysitters, a Hungarian named Matya. This is a conglomerate of characters who, in the words of Winesburg’s Seth Richmond, “just want to work and keep quiet.” Lanchester’s omniscience also patterns Anderson’s, though his characters are grounded not in the grotesque of fin de siècle America but in the gulosity of the international present.

Lanchester’s portrayals of the Islamic sector of London’s populace compose the most scrutinizable sections of Capital. Though they’re entertaining and engaging and never shallow, it is here that the author perhaps brushes against the walls of his own limitations (or maybe his research just hasn’t been naturalized enough for my tastes). It’s also where the POV/literary ventriloquism occasionally sounds a bit forced. There are three Pakistani brothers: Usman, the youngest, bearded and angry, the militant Muslim; his oldest brother Ahmed, an assimilated shopkeeper in a happy arranged marriage; and middle brother Shahid, whose affiliations lie somewhere between the two extremes but who bumps into an old comrade from his more radical days and offers the fundy a couch to crash on. One of them is, somewhat predictably, roughly treated and rights-besmirched by the terrorism-phobic powers that be, and like Wing Biddlebaum at the end of Anderson’s “Hands,” at a moment of dire need he finds solace in a religious article; in Wing’s case it was an allusion, a rosary, while in a situation finely wrought by Lanchester it is a Qur’an.

I compare Lanchester’s approach to Sherwood Anderson’s because though Capital is populated by an interwoven multitude of characters and a singular setting, it isn’t Thackeray or Trollope. This is not a satire nor is it a melodrama. It distributes its laughs and drollery but for the most part it’s pretty staid, very much categorizable as realism. And within its panoramic sprawl there is that lack of a singular protagonist. None of the quintessentially British mainstays, no Becky Sharp or Dorothea Brooke or Pip the orphan here to ground it. Also no ostentatious axes to grind; this is not agit-prop or economic determinism nor is it elitist apologetics. If there is an Anglophilic comparison to be made, perhaps it is to Lanchester’s countrywoman Ali Smith, lauded for her skill at entering a multiplicity of her characters’ heads. In terms of how the various stories weave together to form an almost musical brocade, perhaps the greatest compliment one could afford Capital is that it recalls something of Joyce’s Dubliners. Lanchester’s tome could easily be titled Londoners and it would be a fitting moniker.

Other kindred spirits for Capital can be found in the contemporary film canon, where Kenneth Lonergan’s fascinating Margaret, barely released in 2011 but destined for classic status according to some serious voices in the film community (Karina Longworth has been a particularly vocal advocate), mixes up a similar potpourri for New York City. This may feel like a digression, yet another external comparison, but Lanchester seemingly would approve. He has taken the care to populate his novel with unexpected divergences, at least on the character level. Some of the plot machinations come together rather too tidily, but overall the genre mash-up approach keeps the more predictable moments from bourgeoning into full-scale blemishes. There is a refreshing dearth of soapboxery. There are no precocious teens or one-dimensionally greedy bankers, no strident leftist academics or thinly veiled references to Zadie Smith. There aren’t any ugly Americans traipsing carelessly across the touristy bits of London nor do real-life personages make an appearance. There are no Cate Blanchett or Brad Pitt sightings. That said, the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu are another major touchstone from the world of postmodern cinema. It is as if Lanchester has condensed the global point of view of Babel’s swirling gyres into a singular magnetic city-setting, a cubist interlacing of characters and locales which recalls the megalopolist urbanity of Amores Perros and the surface-coincidental but deeply socio-economic tidal coalescences of 21 Grams.

To return to Sherwood Anderson and regionalism, it may be best to unpack rather literally. The UK edition cover of Capital features a pictographically cartoonish London that more closely resembles Rio de Janeiro (the overcrowded constriction of affluence and poverty, of Victorians and favelas, skyscrapers and shacks, all smashed together in an über-dense agglomeration of third-world and first-world), while the first edition American hardcover comes outfitted with a book jacket depicting an aesthetically pretty mixture of urban nightscape contrasted with a blurry figure in the foreground. It coheres artistically, but it doesn’t give a real sense of the cornucopia of content that awaits, the truly diverse surfeit of characters, interactions and commentaries. For example, there is a masterstroke of a mini-chapter (Chapter 94) that belies what can at times seem like a topically “male” book. The chapter is an almost entirely self-contained story about a long-term couple, in which the female half of the pair brilliantly chronicles the various phases of her boyfriend’s recently diminished attentions and considers the now defective state of their attempted union, the devolution of his character as a man, and the various manifestations this takes as the relationship deteriorates—she makes a list to enumerate his pros and cons and the single pro he maintains is “He used to be lovely.” An Andersonian stroke indeed, most reminiscent of “Loneliness,” which concerns Enoch Robinson, who, like the boyfriend in Capital, is riveted by the art world and later his own solipsism at the expense of his everyday reality and those who people it.

Also, all three blurbs which constitute the back cover matter of the American hardcover are from writers with famous books distinctly associated with New York City (Claire Messud, Joseph O’Neill and Colm Toibin; so a multi-national blend as well). It’s almost as if W.W. Norton & Co was consciously trying to say to a U.S. audience: “Well, some writers who are heavily connected to your big international city like it, so how’s about you take a chance with one of the chaps from across the pond?” And for my buck or euro or pound, Capital is a high-degree-of-difficulty maneuver which, though it has its flaws and a mostly merely utilitarian prose style, gets points for structural complexity and creativity, and for sheer declensive evocation as well. This level of striving is preferable to a more perfectly executed but formally less intricate literary venture. Lanchester’s level of regional realism writ large could easily come off as contrived and the fragmentary style could fail to achieve integration or wholeness, but the novel never succumbs to these pitfalls and contains a plethora of trenchant passages and vivid scenes alongside a laudable and literary consideration of class. Concision, however, is not its primary goal.

Sherwood Anderson’s most canonical work is a triumph of the succinct, one which glorifies what most would call humdrum lives. It is efficiency incarnate. Lanchester’s book, on the other hand, is about a time when global capitalism experiences a failing because of its excesses and overindulgences, its inefficiencies, best exemplified in a situation near the end of the book where a character observes that there are two types of people—those who lose a certain amount of money and take the necessary steps to alter their lives, drastically if necessary, and those who suffer an economic setback and do not change one iota, who are so opposed to living the humdrum life that they vow to spend their way into a more glamorous one whether they can afford it or not. Capital essentially takes the Andersonian form and explodes it, expands it, extrapolates on it. It is Mailer to Anderson’s Capote.

Malcolm Cowley’s introduction to the Penguin edition of Winesburg, Ohio calls it “a work of love, an attempt to break down the walls that divide one person from another, and also, in its own fashion, a celebration of small-town life in the lost days of good will and innocence.” This may be too bucolic an approximation of small-town life, as the aforementioned “Hands” is, after all, about a schoolteacher who is nearly lynched by the townsfolk because of a false accusation of molestation, but Lanchester has aspired, in his contemporary milieu, to similarly break down walls of division, in perhaps the most dense and turbid of modern Western metropolises. If it is a celebration, it is of humanity itself, which at its best transcends barriers of economics and race and culture, which survives despite our era being one of bad will and exploitation, consumed by what Anderson’s Joe Welling refers to in “A Man of Ideas” as the invisible and ever-burning fire of decay. Lanchester’s is a class-conscious novel that is rarely preachy, reminiscent of David Simon’s The Wire in this way (an American work many Brits have lustily embraced). In Capital, when things go wrong for the lower classes, people are incarcerated, deported, manhandled by the state. When they go awry for the upper classes, wifey is given a stern warning to curtail her shopping sprees, a less expensive nanny is hired, a family has to settle for fewer summer vacations to Southern Europe.

When it comes to class, one of the most conspicuous aspects that must be confronted moving forward is the quality and availability of health care. Winesburg features multiple doctors (dear Dr. Reefy in the much-anthologized “Paper Pills” and in “Death,” the unstable Dr. Parcival in “The Philosopher”) and though they are imperfect, they are present, they are fulfilling their function. The doctors in Capital’s London are difficult to access and absorb some of the harshest implied criticism. Petunia receives bad news from a pedant who can’t help but remind her that her brain tumor is, strictly speaking, not a form of cancer. Her daughter Mary speaks with a bevy of health care workers of various stratifications who assist her mother. From these sections, consider this example of Lanchester’s brand of realism as Mary is asked if her mother is being properly tended to: “There’s the GP. I mean the GPs. It’s difficult for them, they don’t know me, I’m just some woman ringing up, the district nurses are nice, they say they’ll come, they mean it when they say it, I don’t know, it’s just sometimes that you feel you’ve fallen down a crack, you’re sort of invisible.” We all could face such a moment, and this is largely why we read, for those moments when the author renders the world genuinely and convincingly, yet anew. Health services are an ultimate reality, as is child care. Both have never seemed more expensive or more complicated, whether the details are sharply observed but innocuous or a symptom of something more insidious. Corresponding examples are found in the nurse who Mary deems too old to be the furious texter that she is, and in Matya pointedly observing that many of the children she is paid to watch “were both spoilt and neglected…and while they were used to being ignored, and to going to almost any lengths to get attention as a result, they were not at all used to hearing the word ‘no’, especially not when it meant what it said.”

A final question then. Is vérité enough? One of the qualities that makes Winesburg, Ohio such a superior work of literature is its enduring value even as many of the things and people it describes have become all but extinct, historical footnotes. Regarding an ultra-contemporary literary portraiture such as Capital, one concerned with accuracy, with detailing a specific time and place, I cannot say whether or not it has the power to sustain and nourish intellectually in a way worthy of comparison to an established canonical work, but I will contend that it’s an impressive and ambitious novel.

It also bears a reaffirmation of that allusion to the Joycean metaphor of the musical brocade. Like Sherwood Anderson’s book, John Lanchester’s is concerned with the unironic truth and with what are often called the common people. Anderson’s is a meticulous micro-opus, what is sometimes now referred to via the shorthand “sepia-toned,” an understated work played with a softly strummed guitar and timeworn banjo, the background whisking of a handmade wooden drum, a choir of townspeople in single-voiced dirge, a folky and foreboding Americana. Lanchester’s is a cacophony perhaps more in the tradition of popular music, where his country’s combinatory legacy concerning the common people moves from The Beatles to Paul Young to Pulp, from The Clash to Arctic Monkeys to Dizzee Rascal and M.I.A. Capital is then the opposite of a parlor trick. It is a populist projection for those caught up in the flow of the many meanings of its title. It is a paean to citizenry. The Greek derivation of protagonist is “first struggler,” but here the strugglers are diffuse and diverse, a multifarious mélange. This is a novel of the many, the distillation of a public that is not necessarily a community (as it is in Anderson’s construction). Given our contemporaneous world, Capital is then best described as deft but never a deception.

Sean Hooks was born and raised in New Jersey. He has a BA from Drew University and an MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He resides in Los Angeles and teaches English at Loyola Marymount University. He’s written a novel and is hard at work on a follow-up.