In 2010, novelist and journalist John Lanchester published I.O.U, Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay—a timely, approachable and anecdotal look at the fiscal crisis in Britain and beyond. In his latest, Capital, he once again explores the unraveling economy, this time through the lens of fiction.
The novel revolves around the homeowners of Pepys Road, an imagined street in the South London neighborhood of Clapham, initially developed to provide housing for lower income families. Though some of the original homes remain, the street has been transformed, both by gentrification and lavish renovations, and the real estate is now worth millions. And in 2007, so are its residents, who include a banker and his label-hungry wife; a Pakistani shop owner and family; and a widow dying of a brain tumor. The many and varied narratives are woven together by a mysterious, anonymous campaign of postcards and DVDs sent to the residents with the simple, repeated message: “We Want What You Have.”
The thread works effectively as glue for the epic cast of characters, often bringing them together on a literal level, but it also functions well as a dramatic device. As the novel moves into 2008, the fiscal crisis takes shape, and life for the people of Pepys Road begins to fall apart in conjunction with the global economy. The ominous and ever-present phrase taunts the characters, and in different ways, forces them into self-examination. The story is peopled by engagingly flawed, fully realized characters, drawn into a harmonious narrative by taut, fluid prose.
Though Capital is a big, broad, multicultural cross-section of one street in a specific neighborhood of one city, Lanchester speaks of matters—a troubled economy; prevailing notions of class and race—that are all too universal.