” Middle-class mediocrity. Suburban mediocrity. A culture that openly worships the average. A society which allows the idea of the elite to exist only in relation to sport. A culture of fat people, lazy people, people who watch reality television, people who aren’t interested in anything except celebrity . . . ” (Ch.34, p.178)
Capital follows a small cross-section of the inhabitants of one south London street, Pepys Road, which was built for lower middle-class families in the late 19th century. But when the story begins in 2007, the value of each house has risen so spectacularly that the people who currently own the properties are all rich, and have done much enlargement of attics and basements to further increase values. The settled citizens come to interact with the newcomers who are trying to negotiate a place for themselves in British society.
People did not want to be anonymous. More: anonymity was one of the things that they liked least about life in the modern world. They wanted to be known, they wanted to be named . . . (Ch.39, p.207)
The title is a pun. As this layered title goes, there is Capital as money, and there is capital as London and the fact that, to Lanchester, the first defines the second adds an admirable tidiness to the layers. But, unfortunately, these layers hardly overlap and remain independent for almost the entire 500 pages of the book.
At the center is investment banker Roger Yount, whose dashed bonus would compromise his luxurious life style and fail to sustain his selfish, shopaholic wife’s discretionary expenditure. He is eventually sacked for gross negligence of his deputy’s embezzlement. The Younts suddenly becomes poor. There’s a dying old lady who is unaware of how much the value of her home has sky-rocketed. Among the social circle also are a Polish man working as a builder, a well-educated Hungarian girl who takes a job as the Younts’ nanny, a Senegalese soccer player being groomed for stardom at great expense, a hated local traffic warden, who is a political refugee from Zimbabwe with a university degree, and can support herself only by paying for a forged work permit. Then there’s Ahmad Kamal from Lahore, who owns a small general shop at the end of the road. His clever, computer-smart brother Shahid is arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist. These immigrants all have to shove aside their humiliation and adapt themselves to what is required of the society. They nonetheless have better survival instincts than the luckier property-owning inhabitants and more industrious than the natives.
Yet Lanchester’s microcosm device of a single street with its diverse socio-economic tiers falls far short of its intent. Although he does convey the shift in the community’s perceptions and values tied to the infectious heart of greed and aspiration, the links between his huge cast of characters are too tenuous, too fragile. Often the link is made simply through an event rather than through the complex social connections that knit a city together. Even the one promising common link to bring all the characters together—the long-running campaign of harassment, postcards, graffiti, and videos afflicting the houses, is dismissed in a very hastening, light manner, despite a slight twist. Capital is seriously flawed, with its disjointed, episodic structure that reads like a series of newspaper observations and vignettes. It’s a long book (so overwritten and overwrought to make a point about greed and mindless consumption) that just ends with the stories winding themselves out. Seriously?
527 pp. W.W. Norton. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]