John Lanchester's critically acclaimed new novel - a rich, multifaceted satire on British life during the height of the financial crisis - is a constant pleasure to read, but as a commentary on the state of a nation it pulls too many punches.
Capital: A financial crisis satire
The latest novel by John Lanchester has already earned its author comparisons with Dickens and Balzac for his observations about that historical, multi-layered and multi-faceted living entity, the city, in this case London, and the rhythms, crests, falls and humdrum details of those who populate it.
Centred on the inhabitants of Pepys Road, an example of the late-Victorian suburban street that was built for the aspiring lower middle classes but which since the late 90s has been the preserve of the wealthy, either through purchase or by virtue of having lived there long enough to have sat on an asset that was now worth "millions of pounds", Capital has been described as "brainy, state-of-the-nation" and as a "big, fat London novel" (it is nearly 600 pages long).
Lanchester has been lauded as possibly being "Britain's answer to Tom Wolfe" and even commended for having "the courage to bore his readers a little" in order to ensure they are informed fully. As Amanda Craig, a fellow London literary luminary, commented in The Independent last month: "Few novels can have been given as much advance praise and publicity as John Lanchester's Capital."
Initially, at least, it does not disappoint. In swiftly paced sequels and vignettes we are introduced to Lanchester's cast. There are the Kamals, the Pakistani family who own, and live above, the corner shop. At No 42 is Petunia Howe, an old lady who is the sole remnant of the road's less well-at-heel past and whose occasionally visiting grandson, "Smitty", is a slightly over-the-top but still delicious caricature of the collision between culture and celebrity - not that his "nan" would know.
"Saying to her: 'I am a conceptual artist who specialises in provocative temporary site-specific works' would have been like telling her he was the world heavyweight boxing champion. She would have nodded and said: 'That's nice dear' and felt genuinely proud of him without needing to go into further details."
In No 27 we find Freddy, a teenage football prodigy from Senegal installed in a rented home done up in anonymous boutique hotel style by the London club that has signed him for an astronomical sum. And best of all, at No 51 there are the Younts, investment banker Roger and his thoughtlessly high-spending wife Arabella, their two children Joshua and Conrad, a succession of day and weekend nannies, and Bogdan the Builder, whose services are required so frequently to decorate and re-renovate according to Arabella's latest whim that he, too, is almost part of the household.
Various strands unravel at a gentle pace. A disturbing campaign, in which someone posts photos and then DVDs of the houses, with the message "We Want What You Have", to the owners, reaches a surprising if bathetic culmination. Decent but selfish Bogdan unexpectedly falls in love. One of the Kamal brothers, Shahid, finds himself suspected of terrorism offences after he rather reluctantly allows Iqbal, an old associate from a youthful trip to Chechnya, to stay in his flat. The Younts suffer two major financial reversals as the banking crisis first looms and then sets in (Capital is set in 2007-2008).
The delight is in the detail. Anyone who has fed a young child will recognise Lanchester's description of Roger Yount being left to fend for himself, sans wife, sans nanny, and attempting to please his son Joshua one lunchtime: "He angrily refused everything Roger suggested before eventually deigning to eat a single narrow slice of crustless white bread with a thin smear of smooth peanut butter, and that was at the fourth attempt: the first slice was too thick, the second was defiled by the use of crunchy peanut butter, and the third by the use of too much peanut butter. Scraping the spread off and re-serving the slice with a thinner smear was by no means acceptable. There was something about the texture of Joshua's tantrum, the way he thumped the table with his plastic plate while shouting: 'No! No, Daddy, no!': the impersonal severity of his rage made it clear that this was a question of standards."
Without needing to elaborate, Lanchester nicely skewers the teenage language used by 30- and 40-something English people - or those unwilling to accept either the reality of their age or the degree of dignity that ought to accompany it - when Arabella rings her best friend to arrange a luxury break. "'Babes!' said Saskia, who was 37. 'Darling!' said Arabella, who was also 37. 'I think I've found somewhere. Shall I read you all the porn or just book?'"
Ahmed Kamal loves running his corner shop and is very much part of the scenery. His difference as a British Asian, unlike the experience of his brother Shahid, is noted in the affectionate way he surveys his shop's shelves in the morning - "the baked beans and white bread and Marmite and Pot Noodles and all the other inedible things that English people ate".
The Younts, particularly easygoing, charming Roger, who has probably taken his good fortune for granted ever since Harrow, but manages to be carelessly amiable with it, are the novel's richest and most accurately satirised characters.
But by the end of the book, even they feel lacking in full texture and depth. Roger is eventually sacked, for an offence not his own, and is politely told by an old consulting friend not to hope for another similar City job (and salary). Thousands have lost and still more are losing their jobs in Britain today, an experience that many find devastating and financially catastrophic. Depression, breakdown and divorce have not been uncommon. Roger, however, appears content just to sell the London house and move to the country cottage. It seems strange for a novel that has been hyped in such ambitious terms not to address at all the human misery that the great recession caused, a consequence that was already widely foreseen early on in the year Capital is set.
Such omissions, indeed the very lack of consequence itself in the novel, do not, however, appear to have troubled some British reviewers. Perhaps this is because ever since his debut, 1996's The Debt to Pleasure, Lanchester has been winning plaudits and prizes. He is now ensconced as a warmly admired and liked leading member of the literary world, all the more so given that he is not known for the vicious feuding or excessive self-regard that are the trademark of some stellar writers. Could this explain a reluctance on the part of Lanchester's peers and friends to spit out the conclusion that one cannot avoid reaching after finishing Capital: that for all it is a constant pleasure to read - I did not once find myself "bored" - it also unfolds as though it is setting the scene for a dramatic climax that never arrives?
To put it more harshly, if this is a state-of-the-nation novel, then Capital's message appears to be that nothing much is at stake in Britain; that it is, as Mark, Roger's thrusting young deputy, observes: "A culture that openly worships the average. A society that allows the idea of the elite to exist only in relation to sport. A culture of fat, lazy people who watch reality television, people who aren't interested in anything other than celebrity ... people who betray their ordinariness every time they open their mouths." There may well be quite a few Britons who do take such a disillusioned view of their country. But I hardly think that the author or his chorus of approvers share this pessimism. On the contrary, the warm tone and the willingness to endow his characters with redeeming qualities even when they behave fairly objectionably suggest that Lanchester intends the reader to think more kindly of London and Londoners; that they are a mixed bunch rubbing along together, phlegmatically coping with mild decline and the inefficiency and rapacity of everyone from parking ticket companies to insurance giants, but ultimately good-natured, moderate and, in a tight spot, comforting as the stodge Ahmed Kamal sells in his corner shop.
There is nothing wrong with such a message. Dozens of British writers made a good living purveying similar tales over the last century. If many of them are not read today, some of them should certainly be considered "in the very first rank of the second rate", as Somerset Maugham described himself. But more is expected of Lanchester. And one has every right to expect more of a "state-of-the-nation" novel. Capital is a very enjoyable diversion. As a work of literature, or as the kind of commentary on contemporary times for which the likes of Ian McEwan can be relied on, there is one adjective it does not deserve - its title.
Sholto Byrnes is editor of Think, the global trends, international affairs and thought leadership magazine of Qatar Foundation, and a contributing editor of the New Statesman.