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The Way They Live Now

Capital

by John Lanchester
Norton, 527 pp., $26.95 (to be published in paperback in May)
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Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
The London Stock Exchange, 1955

When I moved to London for graduate school back in the early 1980s, the city felt as if it existed for just about every purpose other than for people to make money in it. Everyone was either on the dole or on strike, or about to be—and not just working-class people. No one appeared, or wanted to appear, all that interested in what they did for a living, except for the taxi drivers, who were better than those in the US. In the middle of any work day an extraordinary number of grown-ups looked as if they had just gotten out of bed.

Nothing functioned properly; everything that wasn’t broken was about to fall apart. The food was almost deliberately inedible, an inside joke cooked up by the locals to see what human beings would willingly consume. (I had a friend from Manhattan who said that every time he passed a British sandwich shop “I want to go in and strangle the owner.”) And the most extraordinary anticommercial attitudes could be found, in places that existed for no purpose other than commerce. There was a small grocery store around the corner from my flat, which carried a rare enjoyable British foodstuff, McVities’ biscuits. One morning the biscuits were gone. “Oh, we used to sell those,” said the very sweet woman who ran the place, “but we kept running out, so we don’t bother anymore.”

If you had to pick a city on earth where the American investment banker did not belong, London would have been on any shortlist. In London, circa 1980, the American investment banker had going against him not just widespread commercial lassitude but the locals’ near-constant state of irony. Wherever it traveled, American high finance required an irony-free zone, in which otherwise intelligent people might take seriously inherently absurd events: young people with no experience in finance being paid fortunes to give financial advice, bankers who had never run a business orchestrating takeovers of entire industries, and so on. It was hard to see how the English, with their instinct to not take anything very seriously, could make possible such a space.

Yet they did. And a brand-new social type was born: the highly educated middle-class Brit who was more crassly American than any American. In the early years this new hybrid was so obviously not an indigenous species that he had a certain charm about him, like, say, kudzu in the American South at the end of the nineteenth century, or a pet Burmese python near the Florida Everglades at the end of the twentieth. But then he completely overran the place. Within a decade half the graduates of Oxford and Cambridge were trying to forget whatever they’d been taught about how to live their lives and were remaking themselves in the image of Wall Street. Monty Python was able to survive many things, but Goldman Sachs wasn’t one of them.

The introduction into British life of American ideas of finance, and success, may seem trivial alongside everything else that was happening in Great Britain at the time (Mrs. Thatcher, globalization, the growing weariness with things not working properly, an actually useful collapse of antimarket snobbery), but I don’t think it was. The new American way of financial life arrived in England and created a new set of assumptions and expectations for British elites—who, as it turned out, were dying to get their hands on a new set of assumptions and expectations. The British situation was more dramatic than the American one, because the difference between what you could make on Wall Street versus doing something useful in America, great though it was, was still a lot less than the difference between what you could make for yourself in the City of London versus doing something useful in Great Britain.

In neither place were the windfall gains to the people in finance widely understood for what they were: the upside to big risk-taking, the costs of which would be socialized, if they ever went wrong. For a long time they looked simply like fair compensation for being clever and working hard. But that’s not what they really were; and the net effect of Wall Street’s arrival in London, combined with the other things that were going on, was to get rid of the dole for the poor and replace it with a far more generous, and far more subtle, dole for the rich. The magic of the scheme was that various forms of financial manipulation appeared to the manipulators, and even to the wider public, as a form of achievement. All these kids from Oxford and Cambridge who flooded into Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs weren’t just handed huge piles of money. They were handed new identities: the winners of this new marketplace. They still lived in England but, because of the magnitude of their success, they were now detached from it.

John Lanchester’s novel Capital arrives as a report from the end of this transformation. In Lanchester’s London all sorts of un-English attitudes and behavior that once seemed alien and improbable have now become the natural order of things. The author of several novels, which I haven’t read, and a lovely memoir, which I have, Lanchester has lately turned his attention to finance and economics. His only credential for writing about these difficult subjects, as far as I can tell, is to have grown up with a father who was a banker—though of the old, boring kind who properly disliked his job, and left it as soon as he could afford to.

Yet somehow, in pieces for the London Review of Books and a book about the financial crisis, I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (2010), Lanchester has turned himself into one of the world’s great explainers of the financial crisis and its aftermath. He has a gift for taking a reader who knows nothing about a complicated topic and leaving him with the feeling that he knows all about it, or at least everything worth knowing. He makes you feel smarter than you are.

The London of Lanchester’s Capital is a very different kind of city from the one I moved to in the early 1980s. Just about everyone in it is preoccupied by money. Some are worried about where to get it; others are defined by how much they already have; but money is in the air they all breathe. (The exception to the rule, a little old lady who has successfully ignored the boom, turns out, upon her death, to have stashed inside the walls of her house £500,000 in small bills.) Money is obviously very much on Lanchester’s mind too. He’s put it into his book’s title, and also into his story’s declared timeline, from the end of 2007 to late 2008, the heat of a financial crisis. He’s put it also into his chosen setting, a single London street, called Pepys Road.

Lanchester opens the story with a long description of all the more or less ordinary things that have occurred on Pepys Road in its hundred-year existence, and then makes his point:

History had sprung an astonishing plot twist on the residents of Pepys Road. For the first time in history, the people who lived in the street were, by global and maybe even by local standards, rich. The thing that made them rich was the very fact that they lived in Pepys Rd…. The 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.

When the book opens, the residents of Pepys Road receive an ominous postcard, a photograph of their newly valuable houses with a single line written on it: We Want What You Have.

Ah, the reader thinks to himself, this will be a sweeping account of the financial crash viewed through the lens of the rich Londoners on this rich person’s road. Oddly, it turns out to be not that kind of book at all because, even more oddly, the author has set in motion a plot that has almost nothing to do with what he really wants to say. The financial crash makes a brief appearance, but only as a nearly pointless afterthought. The reader only ever meets the residents of three of the houses on Pepys Road, and these people have nothing whatever to do with one another—don’t so much as acknowledge one another’s existence. Their houses do not become characters in and of themselves; indeed, they have no bearing at all on the fates of their inhabitants.

The inhabitants, for their part, are either indifferent or oblivious to the fact that they are receiving all these ominous postcards, around which the story is set up to revolve. Despite its great windup, Pepys Road turns out to be nothing more than an excuse for Lanchester to explore the inner lives of a fantastic array of London characters who live and work around it: a Polish builder, a Hungarian nanny, a Zimbabwean meter maid, a police detective, a conceptual artist, a little old lady, a Kenyan football player and his father, an Indian newsagent and his extended family, and above all, a British investment banker and his wife.

And it shouldn’t work. It’s as if the author built the reader a mansion and then insisted that he sleep in a crowded tent out back—in hopes that life inside the tent will prove to be so much fun that the reader will forget about the mansion he was promised. Somehow, it does work. The most obvious reason is that Lanchester is a talented enough writer that you are inclined to follow him wherever he wants to go, without asking a lot of questions along the way. (His books should come with a Do Not Try This At Home label affixed to their jackets.) Take, for example, his description of the private thoughts of his Indian newsagent, as he helps an old lady, who has fallen in his shop, back to her home on Pepys Road:

For Ahmed, who felt that he was always in a rush, that any given day was at its heart an equation with too many tasks and too few minutes, the list of things to do never shrinking while the time in which to do things constantly contracted, there was something very strange about moving so slowly. It was like one of those exercises where they make people walk backwards, or wear blindfolds in their own houses, to make the familiar feel different. He could feel—he couldn’t help himself—a wave of the irritation he so often felt, at so many different things, in the course of an ordinary day. At the same time he managed to slow himself down and check the irritation, by telling himself that there was no point in doing a good deed if all it made you do was feel bad-tempered.
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