The secret lives of capitalists

Review: Based on the financial crash, John Lanchester's latest novel is so real, you’ll live it all over again.


(Photo: Natalie Castellino; Location and props courtesy of The Art Shoppe, Toronto)

Dissecting the economic tumult of the past few years has offered full-time employment to a legion of journalists, economists, analysts and academics. There is now a glut of carefully researched, earnestly reported explanations of sub-prime mortgages and sovereign debt. You could build a sizable bungalow out of the non-fiction accounts of the financial crisis and still have enough books left over to stock your new home’s library. But if purveyors of fact are now repeating themselves, producers of fiction are just beginning to speak up. The financial crisis has so far inspired one excellent movie (Margin Call), a few so-so efforts (Company Men) and at least one regrettable disaster (Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps). Similarly, few novelists have tapped into this era’s motivations, anxieties and cultural eccentricities as Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities did in the eighties or Jonathan Franzen managed a decade later with The Corrections. John Lanchester’s new novel, Capital (M&S), however, is a work of Wolfe-sized ambition and Franzen-sized success. The reams of reportage will explain the mechanics of what happened and why. To later generations, Capital will offer some of that, plus a rarer insight—what it felt like while it happened.

In Capital’s opening pages, someone shoves postcards into the mail slots along Pepys Road in South London. Each card reads: “We want what you have.” The cards are largely a McGuffin used to connect the disparate stories of the street inhabitants. But they also hint plainly at current class conflicts: “We want what you have” would be a decent motto for the Occupy Movement.

As the cards drop, readers meet the occupants, among them an elderly woman who remembers the street in post-Blitz ruins, a Pakistani shopkeeper and his quarrelsome brothers and a 17-year-old soccer prodigy. But it is the Yount family, at 51 Pepys Road, through whom Lanchester offers his most direct commentary on the world of high finance. Roger, the patriarch, heads the foreign exchange desk at a “smallish investment bank,” where he sits at his desk trying to predict the size of his annual bonus. Between his renovated and re-renovated home, his country estate, his Damien Hirst spot painting, his children’s tuition, their nanny and weekend nanny and the £10,000 for an annual summer party, Roger worries that “if he didn’t get his million-pound bonus this year he was at genuine risk of going broke.”

One of the recurrent questions about the meltdown was how such a large group of trained professionals could take so many risks, make so many stupid mistakes and still think they were being smart. In another new book, The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, neuroscientist and former trader John Coates spends chapters explaining the biology underlying this behaviour, outlining the testosterone feedback loops and rushes of cortisol that drive the stock market. Lanchester offers a more economical diagnosis: “Because every trade involved a winner and loser, making a great deal of money through trading involved being proved repeatedly right, time after time. That had an effect on people who for the most part had not been shy or unconfident in the first place. They tended to think, genuinely and sincerely, that they were the next-best thing to God.”

Roger Yount is not a swaggering Master of the Universe, however. Beyond thinking a million-pound payout is a matter of basic necessity, he is deeply insecure in his professional standing, confessing he no longer understands the “immensely complicated mathematical formulae” that drive his industry. And he is eager to see himself as a victim of the financial system, rather than an co-conspirator. After his bonus falls short, but before things turn truly rotten, Yount compares his position to “being in some shithole in Iraq or somewhere, where some Yank pilot has dropped a bomb on you by mistake. Everybody’s blown into pieces, bits everywhere, limbs, blood, everything. And it’s not your fault. That was the key thing—not your fault.”

Lanchester has already written one satisfying exploration of the financial crisis with 2010’s I.O.U: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. It was a work of non-fiction and a concise, frequently funny primer on the global economic meltdown. The author of three novels and a memoir on his parents’ romantic life, Lanchester is a layman writing for laymen.

The facts of his last book clearly inform the fantasy of this one. Capital is both more intimate and more expansive. Rather than covering the entire global financial system, it focuses on the inhabitants of a single street. Yet it sprawls to cover modern art, modern health care, modern parenting, the absurdities of professional sport, the lot of illegal immigrants, terrorism, AIDS, the difficulties of assembling children’s toys and, of course, money.

What perhaps marks Capital as a work of fiction is that Roger Yount does eventually learn the moral to his story. And laced into the narrative, Lanchester can’t resist a little sermonizing of his own. Not unlike Wolfe, his satire of the modern world’s oversized egos occasionally turns his characters into cartoons (Yount’s wife is a socialite who is selfish to absurdity. She couldn’t be a real housewife, even of the reality television variety). But the oversteps into stereotype are forgivable since the novel hits its mark so often. Lanchester describes owning a house on the rapidly gentrifying Pepys Road as being like being part of an oil rush, except instead of drilling, “all people had to do was sit there and imagine the cash value of their homes rattling upwards so fast that they couldn’t see the figures go round.” Only later do the residents realize the ridiculousness of the bidding wars that drove prices skyward. “Everybody was somehow heated up,” one reflects. “It verged on sexual.”

Anyone who’s lived through the sale of a house in a skyrocketing market will likely relate to the sentiment. As with so much of Capital, it’s a simple fact told through make-believe.