Swans Commentary » swans.com September 10, 2012  



Big City Blues


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Lanchester, John: Capital, 2012, W.W. Norton, ISBN-13:978-0393082074, 528 pages.


"Tous les chemins vont vers la ville, la ville tentaculaire/All roads lead to the city, the tentacular city."
—Emile Verhaeren


(Swans - September 10, 2012)   Modernity, the culture we still live and breathe, is the spume rising from the big city. Charles Baudelaire, entranced by the new Paris, portrayed it in the images of his 1840-'50s poetry. He evoked the tentacles that stretched to take in all of life. He pointed out in prose that by "modernity" he meant "the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent."

There was, of course, a weightier side to the Paris born of the breakthrough of the middle class in 1830 that was to produce a new capitalism, a new politics and, in 1852, a new Empire. All the same, today's students of our own mega-cities concur with Baudelaire that reality and imagination can't be separated, "Our experience of the real -- specifically, the real of the city -- is always imagined,...poetic." (Donald, James: Imagining the Modern City, 1999, U. of Minnesota Press, ISBN-13:978-0816635559, 272 pages, paperback.)

For two centuries, novelists have amply proven the point, exercising their fancy to capture swelling capitals. The task is as large as the cities themselves and there was no set literary formula. Honoré de Balzac stood his young-man-in-a-hurry on the heights of Montmartre where he resolved to conquer the city below. The times were still innocent and exhilarating. We could identify with the hero on the make and his adventures would parade the teeming city before us. Emile Zola's approach, a couple of generations later, had to be different. The times were far from innocent. He followed the fortunes of a family that rose from the peasant earth to the top of the national heap by grappling, no dirty tricks barred, with the multifaceted metropolis.

In the meantime London had become the European behemoth. Charles Dickens took it on, but wisely not all in one gulp. He sent a series of naif and virtuous individuals into "the great smoke." Their encounters with its indifference and evil would etch a picture of the place. Beyond the Atlantic, Chicago was no more an official capital than New York. In the 1890s, however, it looked like becoming the preeminent American city. Theodore Dreiser depicted it through a girl from the country who would finesse its rough money-grubbing, sidestepping its sweatshops and stringent class system. A century on, Tom Wolfe engaged contemporary New York. He came to it on the bias, using broad satire full of Wall Street fauna and characters poached from the tabloids. Fun to read, it kept reminding us of all he left out.

There never was a foolproof recipe for conjuring up the modern super city, a nation's overbearing giant. In Capital John Lanchester has made a game attempt at packaging London. Readers shouldn't be put off by memories of his last novel, Mr. Phillips, (2001, Penguin, ISBN-13:978-0140298369, 304 pages, paperback). Also a London book, it viewed the city through the musings of the eponymous protagonist, a middle-aged accountant who roamed the streets, afraid to go home, after suddenly losing his job one morning. He was so diffident and the scope of his interests and life so narrow that as a cicerone we would have done better with a street guide picked up off a newsstand. Lanchester seemed to be proving that someone can live a lifetime in a city and get to know nothing more than his home and office. Phillips's portrait was that of a likable, limited Londoner, not of his city.

Capital, twice as long, calls up concerned witnesses to metropolitan life. They are hyper attentive, because such is the price of survival. Lanchester clearly intends to leave no category out. Like all his predecessors, however, he has to sidle up to the urban home of millions by concentrating on select individuals and a fragment of the whole. He focuses on the denizens of one short street, the fictional Pepys Road, during 2008, the year Lehman Brothers crashed. The author, born in Hamburg and brought up in Hong Kong, has written nonfiction about the economic crisis and has a sharp eye for the escapades of money. The occupants of his rows of facing houses have all participated in the one financial event that no Londoner could escape. London property increased in value seven-fold from 1980 to 2008. Even allowing for inflation that was a leap that changed everybody's life.

The houses of Pepys Road were built in the late nineteenth century for the former poor, who aspired to rise socially, paper-pushing clerks and suchlike. Dimensions were high and wide with plenty of room for servants. The local demographics changed slowly until WWII finished. Then some Caribbean immigrants joined what became a working-class enclave. As gentrification began and house prices slowly increased, these residents moved out to be with their own kind elsewhere. Change did not pick up speed until the Thatcher 1980s and the boom she brought. The inhabitants then were middle class. Prices rose spectacularly in the next boom of the 1990s and anyone who bought or owned a Pepys Road house was rich. Most properties were renovated and the road became privileged territory where middle-class clout guaranteed the best municipal services.

For his story Lanchester settles on a handful of householders and their service creatures. There's a widow of eighty, left over from frugal times, alone in a house now worth one and a half million pounds. She has a daughter living out of town and a grandson in London leading a double life as plain Graham and anonymous artist Smitty. There are the Younts, Roger and Arabella, the scum on the top of third millennial London. He's a banker on bonuses. She helps him, full time, spend his money. There's Michael, a lawyer, known as Mickey, because he's so in the swim. He sublets his property to a major football team that uses it to house foreign recruits. Freddy Kamo, an adolescent genius of a player from Senegal, resides there with his father.

German bombs did not miss Pepys's Road. On one of the blasted sites a corner store with a dwelling above has been built. A Pakistani family lives there. Ahmed runs the business, and his wife, very happy in her arranged marriage, looks after their two children. Ahmed's two younger brothers live separately in the neighborhood. His feared mother comes over from Lahore from time to time to impose her standards on the family.

Ahmed's shopkeeping, with its long hours and devotion to customers, amounts to much more than the white British are now willing to provide. Lanchester's London welcomes foreigners if they have a special gift for football or for doing menial jobs. Some are happy exiles like the young Polish builder who works around Pepys Road. The natives have lost the knack of craftsmanship and his competence is rewarded. Matya, the Younts's Hungarian nanny, is another foreigner come to better herself. Balzac's ambitious youth came to Paris from the backward provinces of France. In 2008 the energetic came to London from parts of the European Union that still hadn't caught up.

Other arrivals weren't seeking their fortune but simply trying to stay alive. Quintina came on the run from Zimbabwe where she had militated against Mugabe. To work as a traffic warden she has to pay off a black racketeer. When her illegal status is discovered, she's thrown into a grim holding center. The detainees are waiting for their status as refugees to be approved. Bureaucracy, sadistic in its delays, holds them prisoner. Most will eventually be deported. Foreigners are the invisible Londoners, a Pilar here, a Maria there, keeping the mega-city clean and turning over. Mickey couldn't rent his house to star footballers for a huge sum without his African housekeeper.

The curdled glamour of the "City" or financial service area of London fills Lanchester's story with a bad smell. The bankers and traders like to think that the stench blows over from Tower Hamlets, a coin's throw away, one of the poorest quarters of Europe where tuberculosis is making a comeback. Roger Yount, the bonus accumulator, comes daily from Pepys Road to sit in his glass-walled office. City transparency isn't about divulging secrets, but keeping your eyes on the ruthless competition, i.e., everyone else in the building.

Like the current U.K. prime minister, David Cameron, Roger has one well-shod foot in the British upper class and the other on the flashy new trader floor. The lack of old style stockbroker polish in the whiz kids amuses him. That they have reduced class to money leaves him feeling superior. However, when one of them, his assistant Mark, loses millions in unapproved trading, Roger is held responsible and fired. The old boy network, silenced by the new cannibalism, can't help him. Back in his Pepys Road home that cost him two and a half million pounds, he informs Arabella that she will have to find another raison d'être than shopping. Roger's only satisfaction is to see Mark, who had of course fought dirty to unseat him, put behind bars. In an added fillip his former employer, the merchant bank, whose business was to gamble on currency rates, is wiped out in the wake of the Lehman Brothers' collapse.

At the same time, Capital's fast, short chapters develop a half dozen other dramas, all grounded on the asphalt of Pepys Road. In one of these, at the corner store, Ahmet's Pakistani clan, with an exotic twist or two, has to solve the same problems as "normal" (white) London families. They too have an unbearable mother-in-law and younger brothers who disagree with Ahmet's work ethic and habits of overeating. The youngest boy has to pass through a pimpled-adolescent time of admiration for fundamentalism. The other has to pay with harassment by the anti-terror police for an idealistic trip years before to Chechnya.

The Polish builder undergoes a typical metropolitan change of skin. Come for a limited time because the money is good, he dreams of returning home well-heeled to a way of life where he feels truly to be alive. However, he stays too long and finds that his life abroad has become the only one left to him. The mega-city's tentacles hold him tight.

And that widow in her unrestored property swathed in linoleum that every speculator is eyeing? In her eighties she refuses change to the point of not using an electric kettle to make tea. She contemplates her beloved unkempt garden and remembers her miserly husband. Family consensus has it that he imposed a limited life on her. She, however, knows better and accepts that the limitations were mutual as she lights the flame under her blackened kettle the last time. Her death is not easy, and Lanchester, in treating her daughter's mourning, turns his story away from social satire and soapy domestic doings toward something more perennially human.

There is more, much more. Most of it touches money: the insane prestige and prices of Britain's celebrity artists, the wealth and ruthlessness of the market for football talent, and generally, the chasm between the rich who still find individual exits from the now permanent crisis and the poor who are steady and without resource in their downward slide. Lanchester knows about the irony of money. A discovered half million pounds in obsolete ten-pound notes proves hardly worth taking to the Bank of England for validation. They would apply income and inheritance tax and, if the money couldn't be proven legitimate, add tax plus fines, which could be 100% of the original amount. The finder of the treasure trove would be out of pocket for lawyers' and accountants' fees.

Capital is the work of an analytic mind. Its program is to give us a glimpse of a variety of today's Londoners. Turning the last page, the reader has to answer his own question. Wasn't Balzac or Dreiser's passionate pursuit of a single hero or heroine the better way to the heart of a capital city? Census-like enquiry strangely resembles the grill of utopian city planners that James Donald speaks of:

Whenever modernisers have sought to impose the rationality of the "concept city" on urban life, flâneurs, artists and the rest of us have systematically re-enchanted their creations: as comic parade, as sexual display, as hellish dream-world, or simply as home.


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Published September 10, 2012