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book review

“Capital” is a major step forward for John Lanchester.Randy Quan

John Lanchester has already written one essential book on the financial meltdown, his sharply observed I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. With the release of his novel Capital, set in London just after the 2007 collapse of British bank Northern Rock, the question is whether his creative output equals the standard set by his criticism.

Halfway through the novel, I was convinced that I had the answer – and furthermore that Lanchester had written the best social novel since Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections or Zadie Smith's White Teeth. By the end, though, I wasn't so sure.

Capital features the gentrification of Pepys Road, a housing development built for "the aspirational no-longer poor" of the late 19th century. By the 21st century, it is home to "your typical London struggling well-off": bankers, lawyers, even a professional footballer, not to mention the endless stream of tradesmen, nannies and other retainers.

What the residents of Pepys Road have in common is the mysterious campaign waged against them. Someone has been taking photos of their houses and mailing them to the unsuspecting owners as a series of postcards featuring the cryptic message: "We Want What You Have." Is it terrorism? Class warfare? A prank? Conceptual art?

Meanwhile, storm clouds gather over the City as banks begin to fail and credit markets tighten. This is of keen interest to Roger Yount, an investment banker whose effortlessly easy life is about to get very hard indeed. And though his neighbours – including Senegalese soccer prodigy Freddy Kamo, long-time resident Petunia Howe and the Pakistani proprietors of the shop on the corner – may not realize it just yet, their own sense of well-being and privilege lies in the balance as a lifestyle based on frantic consumerism and the heedless optimism of a bull market is coming to an end.

Pepys Road isn't simply an address, it's a crossroads where all sorts of unlikely characters meet. Lanchester uses their interactions to play out the tensions between smug baby boomers and grasping millennials, between the notion of Englishness and the immigrant communities that sustain it, and the ways in which bubble economics play out everywhere from the property market to the art world. It's a major step forward for the author, who is working with a much larger canvas here than in earlier efforts.

If anyone is qualified to take on these themes, it's Lanchester, a frequent commentator on financial affairs for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. He is also the author of a memoir and well-regarded novels.

However, we find the most immediate precursor for Capital in I.O.U., which tells the story of what Lanchester calls our ATM moment, the twin expansions of easy credit and electronic transactions that began in the 1970s, but exploded in the 1990s. I.O.U. is an indispensable guide to this mess we're in, and Capital refracts these concerns through the prism of literature, opening up the terrain for a more searching examination of, with apologies to Trollope, the way we live now.

It gets off to an ingenious start, prompted by the realization that "houses had become so valuable to people who already lived in them, and so expensive for people who had recently moved into them, that they had become central actors in their own right." For a culture where mortgages are equivalent to a secularized notion of fate (whether you believe in a kindly God or a cruel one depends entirely on the movement of interest rates), Lanchester's insight is the basis for a revitalized social novel that reveals how the abstract realm of economic relations structure everyday experience.

And yet it doesn't quite hold up its end of the bargain. Capital seems to ignore the lesson of I.O.U.: However individualistic our culture may be, the financial crisis reveals that we're all in this together. The novel's characters seem oddly unaffected by one another, particularly in their encounters with others outside their own station.

Whether this is simply a failure to capitalize on Capital's early promise or a troubling sign of the challenges faced by the social novel in an age of growing inequality is hard to say. So, while definitely the pick of the season, Capital narrowly misses out on being the novel of the decade. We're still waiting for that one, the novel that pulls hard on the invisible threads connecting the speculative spaces of finance to the subjective realm of the self.

A decade ago, Matt Kavanagh was a struggling grad student who, for beer money, took a part-time job proofreading at a private investment research firm. He ended up with a keen interest in finance and how it gets represented in fiction.

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