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Book review: 'Capital' by John Lanchester

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Capital
A Novel

John Lanchester
W.W. Norton: 527 pp., $26.95


When an author finds a one-word title that fits his book perfectly, it's usually a good portent for its content. And certainly "Capital" is doubly eponymous here, for London — the great city, once capital of an empire and now, since the deregulatory Big Bang of 1986, of the financial world — and for the lucre that is lifeblood to both.

What we encounter at the heart of this vibrant piece of fiction, pulsating with events and emotions, is not mere cold cash but also that grander aspect of money as something expected to go forth and multiply — what Karl Marx was talking about in his famous "Das Kapital," providing yet another sly aspect to Lanchester's protean title.

In December 2007, when Lanchester's novel opens, investment banker Roger Yount ponders the necessity of a bonus to keep his own finances afloat:

"He did very much want his million pound bonus … because he had never earned it before and he felt it was his due and it was a proof of his masculine worth. But he also wanted it because he needed the money. His basic pay of £150,000 was nice as what Arabella called 'frock money,' but it didn't even pay for his two mortgages. … [I]f he didn't get his million-pound bonus this year he was at genuine risk of going broke."

Lanchester takes the time to give us a rundown of the Yount family's expenses, which are hair-raising and at times so over the top you cannot help laughing out loud. But as a dipstick into the wretched excess of that prelapsarian world, it is a valuable sociological document. Roger believes he has done so well shuffling his firm's money around that when he goes in to get his bonus, his expectations have actually risen to multiples of the original million.

The fraction — I'll leave it to the reader to discover just how small it is — that is his portion is not only a brutal reality check but a harbinger of the chill winds soon to blow in the financial world, buffeting Roger and many others. Multiple falls from sundry pedestals are a feature of this novel's plot.

But there's a lot more to "Capital" than money-changers and their temples. The book is centered on houses in a South London street, Pepys Road, aptly named for that famous 17th century Londoner whose diaries provide us with one of the most detailed, colorful portraits of London life. It was originally built, Lanchester informs us, by property developers in the late 1800s for "lower-middle-class families willing to live in an unfashionable part of town."

Fast-forward to the brave new world of 21st century boom-and-bust and even unfashionable addresses command price tags well into the millions. Lanchester truly knows London, its history, unique qualities, hugely varying neighborhoods: "the low spreading outer suburbs of London, then the taller blocks and the East End and the sense of old London, of working-class London, the places where you could, still, see the memory of the Blitz in the gaps between buildings, then just at the end the shocking wealth of the City."

"Capital's" readers get to see not just the City, as London's bustling financial district is known, but the city as a whole, with its diverse people, natives, those from the provinces and immigrants.

Although the exorbitant house prices in Pepys Road mean that the newer inhabitants have — or borrowed — plenty of money, there are still the odd holdovers, such as the elderly lady with her overgrown garden and the house not touched up in half a century. There's also the shop on the corner, run by an extended Pakistani family who live above it. A hugely talented Senegalese teen soccer star and his protective father, suddenly catapulted from poverty to vast wealth, occupy a rented house.

Add to the mix a Polish immigrant builder, sundry nannies, other support staff, co-workers and, bingo, you have a surprisingly broad sampling of Londoners. Lanchester has a real gift for getting into the minds and hearts of his characters. He can make you sympathize with even the most spoiled and unpleasant people when they find themselves in certain circumstances, make you experience joys and sorrows, elation and disappointment.

Those who have read Lanchester's debut 1996 novel, "The Debt to Pleasure," and its successor, "Mr. Phillips" (2000), already know that he has a knack for creating fictional characters and for getting right inside their heads. But with all the kudos due those entertainments, with "Capital" he has risen to a whole new level of accomplishment. Perhaps his intimate familiarity with the world of finance, displayed in 2010's "IOU: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay," has led him to the perfect subject for his fictive talents.

Yet "Capital's" large, vivid canvas has so much more at its center than financial events. One feels a quantum leap not just in technical assurance as he moves his people back and forth but in depth and heft as he takes on big questions, such as the nature of money, the point of wealth, the structural fragility underlying so many kinds of lives. It's not surprising that critics are seeing in "Capital" something akin in acuity and sweep to Anthony Trollope's coruscating masterpiece "The Way We Live Now."

"Capital" is one of the few contemporary books that seems destined to be read a hundred years from now, both for its innate qualities as fiction and for its valuable portrait of the way we lived on the crest of that mad wave of unrealistic expectation. Readers then will have the advantage over us, for while we cannot be sure where the crash of 2008 is still going to take us, they'll know what rough beasts emerged from that bursting bubble of prosperity, brilliantly evoked in this memorable, stunning novel.

Rubin is the author of "Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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