Book: Capital

Capital by John Lanchester
I love the Little Planet-style cover. Pepys Street really is a world of its own.

Like playing with the Flyover feature in Apple Maps.
577 pages, ★★★★

Capital zooms down Pepys Street and documents the lives of its residents over almost two years. People rise and fall, die, move, fall in love, and have strangers wreak silent havoc on their Wifi. I feel like I’m watching all of their lives from above; floating into their homes like some silent, door-to-door spy.

Pepys Street 2
That’s Pepys Street, right there in the middle
Pepys Street
Reading Capital, I feel like I’m flying into people’s lives from this aerial perspective.

The title Capital has two meanings. First, the book is set in London, and reminders of London life are peppered throughout. Wimbledon, Marmite, Pot Noodles, Top Gear, Hello!, and Tesco deliveries of baked beans, bin liners and “No substitutions today, Madam”, taken together, are unmistakably British. Most British of all, was this segment on page 31:

“…laser-print-quality 80 g paper and the A4 envelopes and the A5 envelopes which had become so popular since they changed the way postal pricing worked…bottles of Ribena and orange squash, and the [Oyster card] terminal and the Lottery terminal…”

I love this excerpt because all of the above would be alien to Americans. These aren’t clichés of London (e.g. red buses and the Queen) that tourists drool over; these are anecdotes of daily London life that only those who’ve lived there could relate to.

Another meaning of “capital” is “wealth”, and Pepys Street is remarkably wealthy. The introduction tells us that they didn’t become wealthy through hard work or inheritance; but merely through good luck. House prices on this street rose so fast that millionaires were created within a generation, seemingly without anyone needing to lift a finger.

Aside from lacking a sense of purpose, Pepys Street suffers from one more existential threat. Postcards emblazoned with “We Want What You Have” started arriving at people’s letterboxes. A blog, then another, more provocative blog, followed. Mysterious DVDs, pictures and dead birds then started arriving in the mail. This strange portents are the only thing that unites this otherwise neighbourhood of strangers.

There are a dozen characters in this book. Disappointingly, they don’t interact as much as I wish they would (think about the film Crash, and how everyone’s story was knitted together by the end). Too much interaction, however, would be distinctly un-London—remember that this is a city where glancing across someone else’s newspaper on the train is considered highly uncouth. More character interaction would have made for a better story, though.

The most memorable character is Roger Yount. He needs a £1,000,000 end-of-year bonus to keep up the exuberant promises he’s made to his family. Nannies, second nannies, multiple luxury holidays, and boutique shopping sprees have to be cancelled when his massively underwhelming bonus. We see this character rise and fall, and then re-invent himself more than any other by the end of the book.

Capital was better than Our Hidden Lives because (a) the characters interacted more with each other (although still not much); and (b) it was better-written. I gave that book three stars, so I’ll give this one four. ★★★★

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