Right On The Money: A 'Capital' Book For Our Times

Jun 8, 2012
Originally published on June 8, 2012 5:59 pm

Lizzie Skurnick writes the "That Should Be a Word" column for the New York Times Magazine.

England has always reveled in its drawing-room dramas, from Jane Austen's social minefields to E.M. Forster's Howards End to Upstairs, Downstairs — and yes, the blockbuster Downton Abbey.

John Lanchester's brilliant Capital, set on a once-ordinary London block whose housing prices have skyrocketed, has the distinction of being the first brick-and-mortar novel set squarely in our current times. It's 2008, the peak of the housing crisis, and the homes of Pepys Road, built in the late 19th century for people willing to trade a bad neighborhood for better digs, have zoomed to stratospheric worth. But there's a worm in the budget: Someone is sending each newly enriched homeowner a picture of his own front door, scrawled with the message, "We want what you have." Which — each homeowner wonders — is what?

The answers are as varied as the residents themselves. One of the great delights of Capital is how Lanchester uses the book to show readers the sparkling strata of present-day London, from Arabella Yount, the social-climbing wife of a banker who looks at the card and merely observes no one she knows uses second-class stamps, to her builder, Polish resident Zbigniew, who has traded his present life to save for his father's retirement — a country house which is currently just a castle in the air. Only Petunia Howe, the eldest resident on the street, has the sense to look at her own brittle bones and tatty linoleum with clear eyes. Her answer to the card: Why would anyone would want what she has?

It's easy to confuse a house's worth with your own, and Lanchester has a ball dissecting our folly and foibles, from wealthy rehabbers to striving shop owners to interns aggrieved with the shifting sands of their fates. The street is filled with residents gambling their future on the present, like those first 19th century residents of Pepys Road. Teenager Freddy Kamo, who is used to fetching his own water in Senegal, lives in luxury in his make-or-break chance to be a top-tier footballer. The street's parking warden, Quentina Mkfesi, was a scholar in Zimbabwe. Here, she's an illegal immigrant, zealously ticketing Pepys Road's inhabitants while she waits to receive asylum. Which will triumph — justice or irony?

Lanchester's choice of the name Pepys Road for Capital is no coincidence. Samuel Pepys, the 17th century diarist, gave readers a bird's-eye view of the plague, fire and politics that decimated Restoration-era London. In Capital, Lanchester is our intrepid Pepys, gently showing us our plagues — greed, politics, sheer corruption. They hit close to home, as he plays with the concepts of value and commodity — as close as a half a million dollars in worthless bills hidden in a wall, in one case.

Still, it's not all bad news. These characters, unlike those on HGTV, won't find their lives transformed by a kitchen rehab. But when our lives lie around us in ruins, Lanchester shows us, we don't need a bad loan to rebuild.

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Journalists, economists and historians have all weighed in on the global financial crisis. And now, it's British writer John Lanchester's turn. His new novel, "Capital," is a long reverie on money and what it represents to his cast of characters from newer immigrants to well-heeled bankers. Critic Lizzie Skurnick has a review.

LIZZIE SKURNICK, BYLINE: England has always loved its drawing room dramas, from Jane Austen to "Upstairs, Downstairs," but John Lanchester's brilliant new novel, "Capital," is the first brick-and-mortar novel set squarely in our time. It's 2008, the peak of the housing bubble. The book takes place on an ordinary block in London. Well, it used to be ordinary. The homes on Pepys Road were built in the 19th century by people willing to trade a bad neighborhood for some better digs. Now, prices have skyrocketed. But there's a worm in this budget. Someone has been taking pictures of the front doors of the street, and they're sending those photos to each house's newly wealthy owner, along with a note that says we want what you have. What is that exactly?

We wonder and so do the residents. The answers are varied, as are the characters themselves, and the book takes its time introducing us to each one. One of the delights of Lanchester's novel is the sparkling strata of London that we see here. There's Arabella, a social climbing banker's wife. Her only response to the note is an observation that no one she knows uses second- class stamps. Then there's her Polish house builder, who's traded his present-day life to save for his father's retirement.

Only Petunia Howe, the block's oldest resident, has the sense to really answer the question. She looks at her brittle bones and tatty linoleum. Why would anyone want what she has? It's easy to confuse a house's worth with our own. And Lanchester has a ball dissecting our foibles. Just like those 19th-century homeowners, everyone on the street is staking their future on the present. The road's name, Pepys, is no coincidence either. Samuel Pepys was a 17th-century diarist.

He gave readers a bird's-eye view of the plague, fire and destructive English politics. In "Capital," Lanchester does the same, gently showing us our modern-day plagues: greed, politics and sheer corruption. Those hit close to home as he plays with the concepts of value and commodity. In one case, we even find a suitcase full of half a million dollars in worthless bills hidden behind a wall. But luckily for us, as Lanchester shows us, there's more than one kind of capital. And of that other kind, there's plenty to go around.

CORNISH: Lizzie Skurnick is a critic, poet, essayist, author and teacher. She writes the blog "The Old Hag." She recommended the book "Capital" by John Lanchester. For more book reviews, go to nprbooks.org. There, you'll also find summer reading recommendations from our critics and correspondents. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.