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A matter of life and death

10 March 2012

11:00 AM

10 March 2012

11:00 AM

Capital John Lanchester

Faber, pp.650, 17.99

Hmm. Of the 30-plus characters in this novel, not one is both black and British. Odd, since it’s set in 2007-8, in south London. An early passage shows us a Polish builder listening to a ‘crowd of black kids’ on the Northern Line:
‘You never—’
‘He never—’
‘Batty man—’
And that’s it: six words in 650 pages.

Capital, a metropolitan panorama that takes in the dawn of what we call ‘the current climate’, is wonderful — warm, funny, smart — but you do feel John Lanchester might be afraid to fall flat on his face with a fuddy-duddy faux pas. So no black Britons or (equally weirdly) teenagers of any colour, unless you count a Senegalese football star whose job stops him doing anything teenagey. Yet this risk aversion proves valuable even as it dents the novel’s claim on relevance and verisimilitude.

Chapters that are seldom longer than half a dozen pages take turns to show us an old lady with a brain tumour, a family of Punjabi shopkeepers, a banker struggling to stay solvent after losing out on a million-quid bonus, a nanny from Hungary, a traffic warden who faces being deported to Zimbabwe, a Banksy-like guerrilla art-maker and plenty of others. Writing from the point of view of the migrant characters causes no special hassle, in part, I’d guess, because the Asian material has ready templates; for the rest, Lanchester can wear the research without seeming to trawl.

The narrative orbits a scarcely disguised SW4 street on which the houses fetch megabucks. Residents receive postcards that bear the legend ‘We Want What You Have’, a mystery put to bed five pages from the end. While Capital says less about inequality than this invites us to expect, the novel triumphs precisely because of what it doesn’t do: no overarching plot, no symbolism, no unlikely climax twinning every fate, only a great fat wodge of life and death.

A lot of the comedy rests with the banker, Roger Yount, who at first seems hateful but looks a gent the minute a client brags about his sex tour of Seoul. The satire can be catty. When an alimony-rich airhead trills ‘Babes!’ into her clamshell phone, then fixes up a two-and-a-half-grand stay at a health spa, Lanchester can’t help but tell us she’s 37, as if she should know better.

The book’s energy comes from how much Lanchester knows, whether he’s writing about what the Home Office calls ‘immigration removal centres’ or a match at Stamford Bridge. He knows what it’s like to look after your children when it’s your wife that normally does it and she’s buggered off because she’s had enough. He knows what it’s like to mop a floor — who writes about that? And the declarative prose style, which some might think workmanlike, humbly keeps the focus on the cast, not the author, who wastes no time on op-ed commentary or fancy phrases about weather. Zillions of stories, zero glitz: it slips down.

Mr Phillips, the horny accountant in Lanchester’s novel of that name, dreamt of ‘doing something vague but heroic in relation to the Channel Tunnel’. You might groan if I tell you that the main Muslim character in Capital winds up in jail on suspicion of concocting a nightmarish cousin to that fantasy. But we know Shahid is innocent, mistaken for a minor (and thus uninhabited) character he puts up on his sofa. Phew! The diffidence that narrows this novel’s view of London also spares it the job of getting inside the head of a jihadi, which, if you’ve read much fiction from the past ten years, is probably just as well.

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