By Wendy Spurry
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John Lanchester
Issue 368

Capital is the fictional counterpart to Lanchester’s non-fiction Whoops! which he wrote in 2010 as an angry primer to the financial crisis. This is a boisterous, fast-paced, panoramic novel that uses a single fictional south London street to tie together a broad cast of recognisable London characters. What makes it a wonderful read is the quality of the writing and the characterisation.

The focal point is Pepys Road, a cul de sac of terraced houses that, thanks to rising property prices, are now worth over £1.5 million each. Through each letterbox along this ordinary road drops a postcard with a picture of their own front door and a simple message, “We Want What You Have” written on the back.

The police are called as residents are disturbed and infuriated by the postcards in different ways. We meet 82 year old Petunia, born in Pepys Road and living in the last remaining unrenovated house. Her grandson Smitty is a Hoxton-based modern Banksy-like artist. There is Roger, blessed with an expensively groomed wife, two young children and a powerful job in the City. Freddy Kano is a teenage football sensation who left a shack in Senegal to follow his dream. All are served by Ahmed Kamal, a Pakistani shopkeeper.

Elsewhere in the city traffic warden Quentina has exchanged the violence of the police in Zimbabwe for the violence of the enraged middle classes and Zbigniew has come from Warsaw to indulge the rich in their interior decoration whims.

The mere fact of their physical proximity is not enough to unify these characters – this is London after all. As the hate campaign mounts in intensity the characters become increasingly anxious, exposing their self-centred concerns and their distrust of each other. They worry about the same issues that occupy most of our own minds these days – who has money and who doesn’t; the national obsession with house prices, migrant workers, racism, childcare and the health service.

There is a clear feeling that there is something very wrong with this society that goes well beyond the crash. The protagonists’ preoccupation with money and status is destructive, but none of them see themselves as unpleasant or reprehensible in their pursuit of the London dream. They have little sense of community, and being oblivious to their neighbours constitutes a type of good manners.

Capital is a brainy, microcosm novel which highlights the mixture of diversity and unfriendliness that pervades the city. Despite what the politicians tell us, we are clearly not a “big society” nor are we “all in this together”. This novel reflects financial-crash London as the increasingly polarised society that it is.

Wendy Spurry

Capital is published by Faber and Faber, £17.99

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