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The Way They Live Now

Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos
A newsstand outside the National Westminster Bank, London, early 1970s

You can find this sort of thing on every other page—a fresh and interesting description of a sensation you might have experienced a hundred times without ever having bothered to attach words to it. The talent for these sorts of small-bore social observations is peculiarly English—it kept Kingsley Amis in business for years, and still makes Alan Bennett’s diaries feel like required reading. Maybe it’s the bad weather. (All those hours trapped indoors, watching one another.) Or maybe it’s the literary side effect of a middle-class culture in which people are expected to be painfully self-conscious, clammy in their own skin, and alert to their own folly and deceptions, lest they be spotted first by others. Whatever the reason, the English really are just better at this sort of thing than anyone on the planet.

Lanchester has the English gift in spades, can deploy it at will, and can seduce the reader into ignoring the fact that he has idled the engine he has created for his own story. He also has a talent for inventing characters—in Capital he’s invented a dozen radically different human beings who have very little to do with one another and yet still never lose interest. One example: Smitty, a semi-cynical twenty-something-year-old conceptual artist who makes a million pounds a year, as Lanchester puts it,

through anonymous artworks in the form of provocations, graffiti, only-just-non-criminal vandalism, and stunts. He was famous for being unknown, a celebrity without identity, and it was agreed that his anonymity was his most interesting artefact—though the stunts made people laugh, too.

As Smitty’s success turns on no one knowing who he is, he sits around his grandmother’s kitchen unable to explain to her why he appears to be suddenly so rich:

As for his nan, saying to her “I am a conceptual artist who specialises in provocative temporary site-specific works” would have been like telling her he was the world heavyweight boxing champion. She would have nodded and said “That’s nice, dear” and felt genuinely proud of him without needing to go into any further details.

But at bottom Lanchester is a moralist, and his story is a morality tale. He has a light touch, but not so light that he can hide what he believes. He believes that life is radically unfair. (He’s attracted to unfairness the way Spider-Man is attracted to crime.) He takes an obvious pleasure in his characters for their own sake, but they all exist mainly to illustrate the radical unfairness he sees all around him: he puts them all to work. If you were to sum up in a single sentence the larger point he wants them to make, it is this: people are never free. Even in this seemingly liberated, highly commercialized environment the luckiest and the richest are trapped. They may inhabit a city that has been transformed into one great free marketplace. But the market, to Lanchester, is not an open and invigorating institution, where Ayn Rand’s heroes triumph, and even ordinary people can be all they can be. It’s just another kind of prison. An agoraphobe’s nightmare.

The cases in point are Roger Yount and his wife, Arabella. The Younts come the closest to being the leading characters of Capital, if only because their lives touch more of the other characters than anyone else’s. They are also something like the summing up of the effects on English existence of three decades of exposure to American-style finance. Roger runs the foreign exchange trading division of a City investment bank, but spends less of his time doing his job than thinking about his money problems. “He wanted to do well and to be seen as doing well,” as Lanchester puts it,

and he did very much want his million-pound bonus. He wanted a million pounds because he had never earned it before and felt it was his due and it was a proof of his masculine worth. But he also wanted it because he needed the money. The figure of £1,000,000 had started as a vague, semi-comic aspiration and had become an actual necessity, something he needed to pay the bills and set his finances on the square.

The chief reason Roger spends so much time worrying about money, in his view, is that his wife requires so much of it to be happy. Arabella’s existence turns on her husband’s ability to generate vast sums of money, and yet she hates him for it, mainly because he is lazy in every aspect of his life not having to do with making money. Here is Lanchester channeling Arabella, on the subject of Roger:

He didn’t cook, except show-off barbecues on the occasional summer weekend at his silly boy-toy gas grill, and he didn’t wash clothes or iron them or sweep the floor or, hardly at all, play with the children. Arabella did not do those things either, not much, but that did not mean she went through life acting as if they did not exist, and it was this obliviousness which drove her so nuts.

Lanchester is a sucker for his own characters, but the only feeling he’s able to generate for these avatars of London money is contempt, which is impressive, in a way. (I half-wondered if he set out to write an entire book about an English investment banker and then decided he wasn’t worth the trouble.) The Younts, unsurprisingly, are also the only characters for whom the reader feels no hope whatever. As bleak as circumstances seem for, say, the Zimbabwean political refugee turned impoverished British meter maid, there is still a chance things will work out for her. She may be all alone in the world and locked up in a detention cell for a crime she did not commit, at serious risk of being sent back to her native country where she will be tortured and murdered—but at least she is not a soulless, loveless, hollow, materialistic monster. On Lanchester’s moral compass British Financial Man represents something like true north, the point against which the other characters can be cleanly measured.

This is, of course, all make-believe. Lanchester controls his fictional world; there is no rule of real life that says if you spend all your time and energy trying to make a million bucks a year you are inherently phony or loathsome, just as there is no rule that says if you devote your time and energy to things other than the relentless pursuit of material gain you are inherently lovable. But in Lanchester’s fictional world, a world that feels plausible and unforced and true, even, I’ll bet, to many people who work in the City of London, the lust for money is a moral disease with an extremely high mortality rate. As I read his story I found myself thinking of recent research done by Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley, psychology department, showing that rich people are less likely than other people to exhibit compassion, empathy, or concern for anyone’s interest but their own.

I also found myself thinking: the English may finally have decided they have had enough of their experiment with the American financial way of life. If what happened in the Western world financial system had happened at another time in history, there would have been an obvious political response: a revolt against the Roger Younts of the world and, more generally, the grotesque inequities spawned by the putatively free financial marketplace. If the memory of British socialism wasn’t so fresh—if people didn’t still recall just how dreary London felt in 1980—they’d be pulling down the big banks, and redistributing the wealth of the bankers, and it would be hard to find a good argument to stop them from doing it. The absence of the satisfying political response to the financial crisis is due, at least in part, to the absence of an ideological vessel to put it in. No one wants to go forward in the same direction we’ve been heading, but no one wants to turn back either. We’re all trapped, left with, at best, the hope that our elites might experience some kind of moral transformation.

The English, interestingly, have been leading the way on this. Since the financial crash, the Bank of England has consistently been the main source of argument hostile to established financial interests, and made cogent cases for reducing by fiat both the size of banks and the pay of bankers. Most recently the newly elected archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, penned an opinion piece for Bloomberg News, in which he pleaded that “financial services must serve society, and not rule it. They must be integrated into the economy, not semidetached.” And now we have a leading English novelist, and fair-minded soul, showing us the effects of the world we’ve created, or allowed to be created for us. Capital may open as a story about money, but it ends as a story of the limits of money—and with a bit of hope. In its closing line the former British investment banker has lost his job and is finally having a refreshing thought: “All he could find himself thinking was: I can change, I can change, I promise I can change change change.”

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