:: Article

The Dickensian aspect

By Max Dunbar.


Capital, John Lanchester, Faber & Faber 2012

In his classic essay on Charles Dickens, George Orwell compared the great London storytellers of the Victorian era to novelists of the 1930s:

Dickens had had vivid glimpses of ‘low life’ — life in a debtor’s prison, for example — and he was also a popular novelist and able to write about ordinary people. So were all the characteristic English novelists of the nineteenth century. They felt at home in the world they lived in, whereas a writer nowadays is so hopelessly isolated that the typical modern novel is a novel about a novelist.

Writing at the peak of the Dickens bicentennial celebrations, the novelist Alex Preston touched on something similar. Although his Victorian comparison was not Dickens but Trollope (author of ‘the supreme example of the state of the nation novel, a sprawling tour de force with a huge cast of characters and a labyrinthine plot’) Preston’s words echoed Orwell’s: ‘as the credit crunch hit, with London at its heart, it became clear that few writers had engaged successfully with the financial and economic stories that filled the front pages of our newspapers.’

Contemporary novelists just didn’t see this one coming. Writers don’t understand finance. Novels of the boom years didn’t touch on the City. When a banker character appears in fiction, he is likely to be some rampaging Bullingdonian yob, called ‘Hugo’ or something, who would only be seen in social situations and who gets his comeuppance at the end. (The non-fiction accounts and confessionals published since the crash suggest that the Square Mile really does attract a lot of people like that.) Part of the problem is that, in the 2000s and in the 1930s, literary fiction had become too insular and disinterested. God knows I’ve been hammering away with that line of argument for years.

However, the panoramic novel has enjoyed some renaissance or catch-up. Preston goes on to salute the ‘neo-Trollopians’ ; Amanda Craig, Justin Cartwright, Sebastian Faulks and John Lanchester, whose recent novels, Preston says, have taken up the state-of-England challenge laid down by Trollope (or maybe Dickens).

The similarity in subject matter and formal approach of these four novels is uncanny. Each uses a cast of characters drawn from across the social spectrum; each has a racy thriller-ish subplot that hurries the narrative along; each is fascinated with property and money; each takes an essentially tribal approach to London, showing the isolation of the urban condition, and yet counteracts this structurally by using the intersection and (often romantic) coming together of the various strands to give London life a comforting coherence. These novels are beacons against the alienating multiplicity of city life.

Of the four books under discussion, Lanchester’s is the most recent and has a good claim to be the most hyped novel of the year. It was plugged in numerous ‘Watch out for in 2012’ pieces and released to mainly flattering reviews, profiles and interviews. No one with the least interest in the book world can be unaware of it.

Lanchester began the book in late 2005. He may be the only British novelist to have seen the crash coming. ‘When the crash did come,’ Lanchester writes, ‘in real time as I was still writing my novel, it turned out to be something else; something vastly more alarming and systemic.’ He put the book aside to write an informative and entertaining non-fiction work about the credit crisis. He also complained that the literary world ‘often seems to have a positive aversion to the depiction of work in general, and financial work in particular.’

Capital actually begins very well. All Lanchester’s main characters live on a single city street, and he begins the book by describing the history of the street’s architecture, then its demographics, from the nineteenth century to the first years of the new millennium. All this is just pleasant and interesting. And then Lanchester begins to soar:

All this was part of a big change in the nature of Pepys Road. Over its history, almost everything that could have happened in that street had happened. Many, many people had fallen in love and out of love; a young girl had had her first kiss, an old man had exhaled his last breath, a solicitor on his way back from the Underground station after work had looked up at the sky, swept blue by the wind, and had a sudden sense of religious consolation, a feeling that this life cannot possibly be all, and that it is not possible for consciousness to end with the end of life; babies had died of diphtheria, and people had shot up heroin in bathrooms, and young mothers had cried with their overwhelming sense of fatigue and isolation, and people had planned to escape, and schemed for their big break, and vegged out in front of their televisions, and set fire to their kitchens by forgetting to turn the chip pan off, and fallen off ladders, and experienced everything that can happen in the run of life, birth and death and love and hate and happiness and sadness and complex feeling and simple feeling and every shade of emotion in between.

In this para Lanchester rises to Faulkner’s achievement, to see the world in a grain of sand.

A couple of chapters in, though, a sense of something missing takes hold. What is missing? It can’t be the characters, Lanchester has loads of characters. There’s a City banker, a Banksy-style conceptual artist, a Polish builder, a Premiership footballer, a Zimbabwean illegal immigrant, a family of settled Asian shopkeepers and an elderly lady; all of them either live on Pepys Road or have some functional connection with the street. They all have some connection with each other, too; the Polish builder Zbigniew does some interior work in the house of Roger Yount, the City guy; the conceptual artist Smitty doesn’t live in the road but sometimes likes to visit his grandmother, Petunia Howe; the Zimbabwean works as a traffic warden and enrages other Pepys Road residents by ticketing their cars to quota. At some point Lanchester has realised, or had explained to him, that there also needs to be a connection that is more mysterious and existential, so he has some unknown party slide a postcard through every Pepys Road door, bearing the message WE WANT WHAT YOU HAVE. This device that turns into a kind of low-key terror campaign (the postcards are followed by DVDs showing amateur footage of the street, then dead birds in jiffy bags) has the potential to have exactly that kind of mystery, but Lanchester ruins this by ascribing the whole thing to a character whose identity is telegraphed well before it’s announced in narration.

The story is told in a large thicket of short chapters, during which Lanchester headhops between his characters in localised third person. Very localised indeed. Lanchester is one of those writers who much prefers exposition to dialogue, so we get pages and pages of internal soliloquy rarely leavened by characters actually talking to and interacting with each other. And the internal monologue is often not that interesting. Here’s a scene where Roger Yount, the banker, is in a meeting with his boss, who he needs to impress, and his deputy, who gives Roger the creeps and who loathes him.

Roger might have been nervous at going over the software problems with Lothar in the room. Everyone in business knows that everything to do with software is a guaranteed nightmare. But Mark never approached Roger with a problem to which he did not have, if not a solution, then an idea about where a solution could possibly be sought. The department was working with the IT department and an external contractor to develop a new, custom-made software package to display information on traders’ screens: the holy grail was the maximum amount of information with the minimum clutter, and the greatest amount of individual customisation (since the traders all had their own views about how they wanted their screens to look) combined with the shortest learning curve. This didn’t interest Roger particularly, but then not much of his work did, and he was always ready to take a view in his amiable, even-tempered way. That didn’t seem to be necessary here. In this instance, Mark’s tone implied that he knew Roger was busy, that it was not all that urgent a query, and that it would be entirely legitimate for Roger to wait for a new, improved version of the software before he deigned to look at it. So he was making it clear that his enquiry was pro forma, except that if it was too obviously pro forma it might look as if he did not value Roger’s opinion, which he did, he deeply did. All this was part of the way Mark was a perfect deputy, uncannily so. Lothar made no move to take the file. For a moment Roger thought it would be more expressive of confidence in his deputy, and therefore a better example of Deconstructed Management, if he didn’t look at all the papers, but then a bat-squeak of instinct told him to play it the other way.

We need, at most, around a tenth of that para. And the general tone of the book is that overwritten, pedestrian, clunky, cliched and redundant. Although it is set in 2007-2008 the novel feels timeless, and in the worst possible way. The fumbling cultural references bely Lanchester’s image as a great researcher (the critic Anna Baddeley could have told him that no one has used ‘text speak’ since the facility of predictive text) and the book often has a sitcom feel that is more Hardware than Curb Your Enthusiasm. Has anyone really thought how funny and profound it is that the internet, one of the great inventions of the new century, is so often used to look at pornography? Or that the visit of a cantankerous mother-in-law may be seen by her family as a fearful duty rather than a pleasure? Oh, what an acute observer of the urban life and the human condition John Lanchester is!

The story is predictable – although that’s not really Lanchester’s fault. Most bankers in December 2007 were heading for a fall, and to give him credit Lanchester makes Roger Yount sympathetic enough so that it hurts a little when he crashes and burns. We know that Quentina the Zimbabwean immigrant is going to get deported. Quentina’s story is among the book’s strength’s, the passages that deal with her political activism and eventual confinement to a detention centre are well written and moving. (The treatment of immigrants in Britain today really is like something out of the Victorian era, a scandal that Dickens would certainly write about if he were around today.) Lanchester’s treatment of the footballer Freddy Kamo is also deft and poignant, and I say that as someone who has never been into the game.

I would like to speculate something. I think that at some point in the 2000s John Lanchester stood up and said to himself: ‘Right, I’m sick of all these silly books about middle aged people in Islington having affairs. I, Lanchester, am going to write a Big, Bold Novel that captures the state of the nation in the new century. I am going to write the Great Panoramic London Novel!’ Except that panoramic novels are hard. You need believable, three-dimensional characters, and they need to interact in realistic and believable ways. You need to explore your characters’ stories, and the ways in which their stories connect. The book itself must have a soul – the soul of a city. As it is, Capital never stops feeling like a novel that has been produced by committee, workshop or focus group.

Lanchester may have wanted to emulate Dickens, but he comes off more like the editor from The Wire, who urges his reporters to find ‘the Dickensian aspect’ while missing the human drama happening every moment of every day on the city streets.

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 5th, 2012.