Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Page-turner captures economic crisis
ENGLISH author John Lanchester's absolute page-turner of a novel comes off like a fiction version of his brilliant primer on the 2008 global banking crisis, IOU: Where Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay.
Capital covers the same time period. The financial crash is still a recent event, and you can imagine Lanchester racing to publish before the news story goes cold. That's not something you often see in intelligent literary fiction like this.
As well, an investment bank manager is at its centre, though one in London. He and his cohorts are absorbed in their petty desires as the iceberg known as the Lehman Brothers collapse approaches. (Lanchester, the son of a banker, actually predicted the collapse in his journalism.)
But the other thing that makes Capital so real is the precision with which its characters are drawn. By the end, part of you is convinced: this happened.
Well, it did and it didn't. Here's a novel about people arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while the inevitable approaches, and it's a marvellous portrayal. Some people are calling it a British version of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, and it's an apt comparison.
It's also a bit like Arthur Hailey's Hotel with its lengthy roster of characters, but as literary novel, not a potboiler. What's surprising is how easy it is to keep the characters straight.
Again, Lanchester is so smart. He uses short chapters. In total, there are 107 chapters in the 526 pages, 108 if you count the prologue. It's the same kind of clarity Lanchester brought to his non-fiction work on the banking crisis for those of us who aren't financial wizards.
These characters don't reside in a hotel, however. What knits them together is their connection to a London street called Pepys Road. It's an older, lower-to-middle-class suburban street that slowly, and then quickly, climbed the economic and social ladder to become fashionable.
Now Pepys Road is represented by upper-class types like Roger and Arabella Yount. Roger is the investment banker fretting over the size of his year-end bonus. Arabella might by a symbolic name for "airhead belle." She just spends, designs, lunches. She calls to mind an old New Yorker magazine cartoon where a woman declares, "I'm a stay-at-home mom without the kids."
Arabella has kids, but the nanny sees to them. At the other end of the Capital's class spectrum is native Londoner Petunia, an elderly woman and an original on the street before it went upscale.
She has contracted cancer. Her daughter Mary cares for her. Lanchester presents these passages through Mary's eyes. Her mother is dying, and Mary is going to be rich. She just wants to cry.
Connected to Pepys Road are many wonderfully drawn immigrant characters. Meantime, someone has left an anonymous message on doorsteps on Pepys Road. The message reads: "We Want What You Have," and more menacing doorstep offerings follow. A police investigation results.
This is where the immigrants come in. It's what has drawn them to London. Capital. We Want What You Have. Even the native Londoners aren't sure they want what they have. A correction is coming.
Capital is Lanchester's third novel since The Debt to Pleasure in 1996. It's impossible to put down, rare for a novel in the literary category. It is more proof that Lanchester is one of Britain's best writers, fiction or non-fiction.
Free Press reporter Bill Redekop's new book is Dams of Contention: The Rafferty-Alameda Story and the Birth of Canadian Environmental Law, published by Heartland Associates.
By John Lanchester
McClelland & Stewart, 527 pages, $33
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 1, 2012 J9
Updated on Tuesday, July 3, 2012 at 10:48 AM CDT: Replaced book cover.
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