John Lanchester (McLelland & Stewart 2012, hardcover) 527 pages
$32.99 cover price
A few words about Margaret Atwood to start. I don’t remember the name of the specific novel - psychologists tell us that pleasurable memories are more powerful than their opposite, thank God - but I was 300 or 400 pages in when I realized that there really wasn’t a plot. That was the moment I rejected Atwood as a novelist. A great purveyor of paragraphs yes; but a novelist? Not on your nelly.
The hell of Capital is that I like John Lanchester. He writes magnificently on business and economic issues for the Guardian and many other media. As such, when I heard that he had a novel coming out called Capital, I figuratively or maybe even literally rubbed my hands together and requested a review copy.
Two weeks later I was done. Two weeks. Not so long for the incarcerated, a lifetime for the reviewer. My prideful boast is that I generally consume books the way the late A. J. Liebling consumed oysters and plank steaks, three a week for me, not two weeks for one.
I remember when Tom Wolfe (the younger one, not the Of Time of the River version) wrote The Bonfire of the Vanities some 20 years ago. Wolfe pronounced his distaste for writers who wrote novels about ‘small rooms’, instead wanting to follow the path of Proust or Ford Madox Ford and write the sweeping, all-encompassing, no stone left unturned chronicle of the age. Largely, Wolfe succeeded.
Largely, Lanchester doesn’t. Which is a shame. Because this book, centred around the various residents of Pepys Road in London (Pepys = social historian, geddit?) does all the set-up exposition one would ever desire without ever supplying an emotional pay-off.
There is the germ - aachoo! - of a plot line here. the Pepys residents - let’s call them Peepers - exist in isolation from one another, yet all receive postcards from an anonymous source inscribed with, ‘We Want What You Have.’ Now that would be exciting stuff except no one seems very perturbed by the postcards; neither residents nor police. The messages have all the serious impact of a Hallowe’en toilet papering.
Not every book has to be a thriller - if you’re thinking that you don’t know me very well. However, Hitchcock knew that if the characters did not take the McGuffin seriously (those secret formulae hidden in wine casks) neither would the audience. So instead what one is left with are many, many, many chapters - 107 to be precise - of exceptionally defined description which ultimately add up to nothing.
For a novel called Capital and for a time such as ours, I expected more. Then again, I buy lottery tickets.