Capital: A Novel

  • John Lanchester
  • W.W. Norton & Company
  • 528 pp.

On affluent Pepys Road in London, the economic crisis is withering for a diverse group of residents already unsettled by the crumbling society around them.

Reviewed by Lawrence De Maria

Many people, including writers, have tried to make sense of the financial mischief that some of the 1 percent inflicted on most of the 99 percent over the last few years. One problem is that not enough heads have rolled, and those that did belonged to schemers and charlatans who broke the law outright rather than merely manipulating it and covering their tracks with layers of lawyers and political contributions. Predictably, and certainly ironically, those few crooks now in the hoosegow were “victims” of the monetary upheavals caused by their smarter brethren: frightened investors asking for their money back exposed Ponzi and similar schemes.

One wonders what the unlucky jailbirds think about the taxpayer billions that went to bail out the quicker-footed one-percenters.

But at least we have someone like Great Britain’s John Lanchester, whose latest novel, Capital, puts a human face on the economic upheaval that, if current headlines are an indication, will be with us for some time.

Lanchester brings a lot to the table. The author of several acclaimed novels (The Debt to Pleasure, Mr. Phillips and Fragrant Harbor) and a contributor to The New York Times and The New Yorker, he also had the financial chops to write I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, a witty, irreverent but compelling nonfiction account of the financial collapse. When I.O.U. came out in 2010, some critics suggested that it would so tarnish the reputation of bankers that they would be loath to continue the dangerous activities that led to the economic meltdown.

Well, sure, and the Chicago Cubs will win the World Series.

But Lanchester tried, and keeps trying. In Capital, he is less concerned with placing blame (although references to Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers ground the novel) than with showing how the crisis affects a wildly diverse group of residents on affluent Pepys Road, London.

The residents include a young investment banker ― with an acquisitive wife from hell ― who has spent forward a bonus that never materializes; a suddenly rich teenage soccer prodigy from Senegal; a Zimbabwean meter maid hiding from immigration authorities as she tickets unlucky Londoners; a bickering but ultimately stable Pakistani shopkeeper family, and a dying woman and her anarchistic graffiti-artist grandson. All must contend with the financial fallout, as well as with a series of increasingly ominous postcards saying “We Want What You Have.”

The characters in Capital have human problems exacerbated by the crumbling society around them. A nanny is let go by a now-not-so-rich couple and can no longer see the 4-year-old child she has come to adore. An exhausted daughter must care for a mother with a brain tumor. A young athlete’s career is shattered. An overbearing mother-in-law arrives in the midst of a fragile Pakistani family with the impact of a C.I.A. drone.

Lanchester’s writing is inspired, of a quality that makes me want to check out his other books. While there are enough “Britishisms” to remind American readers where the action is taking place (a favorite, “sleeping policemen,” local jargon for speed bumps), Lanchester’s prose is universal. Almost every page contains insights into the human condition, some profound, some merely interesting, all delightful.

Take this passage, in which Zbigniew, a Polish contractor, is in a bar awaiting a woman he no longer wishes to see. His nerve is going. He mentally tries out his excuse.

“My grandmother is dying. I must go home to Poland. We can never see each other again.”

“I am gay.”

“I have AIDS.”

“I am gay and I have AIDS.”

“I am gay and I have AIDS and my grandmother is dying in Poland, also of AIDS, and I have to go back to Poland and my mobile contract is about to lapse so you can’t call me.”

Deciding “that might be too much,” Zbigniew opts for the truth: He isn’t ready to settle down and can’t lead her on any more. Later, his innate decency is put to an even greater test.

Elsewhere the author describes the anguish, but ultimate triumph, over family tragedies with a grace that will touch anyone’s heart and put everyone’s financial problems into perspective. Americans who are used to thinking that their country is the ultimate melting pot may be surprised to learn that Great Britain, struggling with a reverse invasion from its former colonies, is also in something of a boil. The fabric that holds the country together is stretched taut by the financial crisis.

Capital is not without flaws. It is not easy keeping all the characters straight, and the various plots, while ultimately weaved into a whole cloth, can be confusing. Moreover, the postcard gambit, which eventually involves the police, serves mostly to keep the tension going. The phrase itself (“We Want What You Have”) is, of course, a cruel joke. Would anyone want what happens to some of these people? That’s undoubtedly Lanchester’s point, but the ultimate resolution of the mystery is a bit of a letdown.

Lanchester’s trenchant depictions of modern British life ― the medical service, bureaucratic and police indifference, racial and cultural prejudice, rampant consumerism and capitalism gone amok ― can paint a bleak picture. But the overall canvas of Capital is not bleak. With humor and grace, the author brings to life a group of people whose resilience in the face of adversity may see the country through.

Assuming they have learned something from the recent past.

After all, the Cubs could win the World Series.

Couldn’t they?

Lawrence De Maria, a former senior editor and writer at The New York Times and Forbes, is the author of three novels, Sound of Blood, Capriati’s Blood and the just-released Madman’s Thirst. All are available on His website is

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