Faber & Faber, £17.99, 577pp. £16.19 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Capital, By John Lanchester

 

Virginia Woolf did not much approve of the intrusion of estate agency into fiction. "House property," she sniffily wrote in the talk that became her 1924 essay "Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown", "was the common ground from which the Edwardians found it easy to proceed to intimacy." Her polemic, against Arnold Bennett in particular, and the painstaking social realism of pre-1914 British fiction in general, scorns Bennett for "describing accurately and minutely the sort of house Hilda [his heroine] lived in, and the sort of house she saw from the window." Against this plodding artisan's view, she sets the intangible "character" of Mrs Brown, the elusive human spirit that no amount of sociological annotation can ever pin down. "I believe," Woolf maintained, "that all novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite". And no amount of estate agent's patter will ever capture what Woolf, in another essay, rather bafflingly called the "luminous halo" or "semi-transparent envelope" of her inner life. That task falls to the modern novelist.

From its terse but over-determined title onwards – the metropolis itself, but also the wealth made and lost there – John Lanchester's fourth novel proclaims its ambitions. An aspirational novel about (mostly) aspirational people, it chooses on one level the generic company of the post-financial meltdown London narrative. Most obviously, it broadly shares a time and a milieu, as well as one or two specific plot-threads, with Sebastian Faulks's A Week in December. Capital unfolds, or perhaps unravels, in four acts between December 2007 and November 2008, as the money bubble bursts and "hard times were moving in like a band of rain". A smug banker loses his job. A scheming YBA loses his mystique. A Muslim kid loses his innocence and, for a while, his liberty. And an elderly lady, resident from childhood on the inner-suburban south London street where all the principals live, loses her hold on life.

"She had a complete understanding of the signifiers," comments Lanchester about the banker's brand-fixated wife. And so does her creator. Yet to treat Capital merely as a highly accomplished exercise in topical box-ticking, with every symptom of boom-and-bust duly diagnosed, would do it scant justice. Lanchester does indeed wish to register the meaning of his moment. He wants to understand – like the lonely father of his African football prodigy – "the rhythm of the city" as the newly-rich soar away from their fellow-citizens while they continue to live among the middling, the struggling, even the downright desperate. He grapples, as novelists have since the age of Dickens and Balzac, with the need to forge and seal believable connections between disparate characters thrown together in this metropolitan mix.

But he also seeks to reconcile the "code of stuff" – the external particulars of salaries and decor, possessions and routines – with the interior life that intrigues but eludes the artist "Smitty". This "celebrity without identity", a visionary artificer of the nine-foot stone dildo and the sawn-up Ford Focus, is Lanchester's clever but (deliberately) irritating, Banksy-style Shoreditch conceptualist. Smitty, a grandson of the street's expiring matriarch, reflects "that was a big part of what art was about – getting into people's heads". In Woolf's terms, you might say, Capital strives to introduce Mr Bennett to Mrs Brown.

We can spot this double frontage from the off. A prologue gives us a demographic snapshot (with exact prices attached) of Pepys Road, built for "aspiring not-too-well-off" Victorians but now, after the long property boom, "a street full of winners". Here, the seven-figure, basement-enhanced homes have become imperious, improvement-hungry "actors in their own right".

Just now, someone is taking close-up pictures of each house, later converted into anonymous postcards bearing the legend "We Want What You Have". Criminal harassment? Art-school prank? Underclass rebellion? The gnomic missives, which later turn nasty and migrate to a guerrilla website, lend Capital a McGuffin-esque plot-driver. Like most such devices, it disappoints in the long run, while never much impinging on the story's immersive flow and swerve.

Then we meet our old lady in the corner: Petunia Howe, at number 42. A relic of the road's more plebeian past, and keeper of a beloved garden as "crowded, profuse, overgrown" as the city and its multiple plots, she will soon face a terminal illness.

For all its life-in-one-location premise (a favourite of mid-century London novelists such as Patrick Hamilton and Norman Collins), Capital only really visits three other addresses. At 68, their corner shop, the Kamals both live and work. This arrangement lets Lanchester delight in the bustling, quarrelsome, affectionate togetherness of an ordinary "squeezed middle" family – just the sort of people now mostly priced out of Pepys Road.

Life with children, thinks Rohinka Kamal, is "life in colour". Many of Capital's keenest pleasures arrive when it takes a break from Zeitgeist-hunting to relish that spectrum. However, their son Shahid briefly went to Chechnya on a quixotic mission of solidarity with the umma in the 1990s. His grumbly radical brother Usman reluctantly serves wine in the shop, "like a Rottweiler chewing a wasp". And now Iqbal, a Belgian headbanger from the Chechnya jaunt, turns up to haunt the laid-back Shahid. Cue a jihadi-related sub-plot that finds Capital at its most formulaic, and well behind the beat: after all, Hanif Kureishi published "My Son the Fanatic" in 1994.

At number 51 live buffonish investment banker Roger and his high-maintenance spouse, Arabella. They soon feel, via a vanishing Christmas bonus, the first breath of the gale that will blow their designer playhouse down. For all his expert form as a non-fiction pathologist of the credit crisis (in his book Whoops!), Lanchester wisely goes easy on the banking arcana. Despite signs of redemption, after the financial hurricane has hit, this couple for the most part remain smartly-accoutred cartoons – one side of the book's constant seesaw between satire and soulfulness, Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown. In contrast, Petunia's slow withdrawal, and loss of a community in which the phrase "We're all in this together" made sense, helps ballast the novel with a richly textured sense of a personal past.

Over at number 27, teenage football genius Freddy from Senegal tries to adjust both to life in London – that frenzied treasure-house where "the whole city was for sale" – and to the unforgiving spotlight of Premiership fame. Meanwhile, his policeman father Patrick pines for home. Mickey, a wide-boy solicitor turned fixer for Freddy's club, makes his entrance as a standard-issue spiv - but comes to cherish and, indeed, love his young charge. And it is unscheduled, unaccountable love – like that which blooms between Hungarian nanny Matya and Roger's volcanic three-year-old, Joshua – that knocks surprise holes in the social walls of Pepys Road.

Novelists who aim for the metropolitan panorama, or panopticon, have always sought ways to knit its wayward strands together. For Dickens and his peers, that meant secret kinship, and hidden affinities between remote characters. For the Modernists, the logic of montage and juxtaposition took over. Surreal urban contiguities and coincidences replaced occult bonds of blood or debt. Joyce's Ulysses, both a realist and a Modernist masterpiece of city fiction, deploys both kinds of adhesive.

Capital tends to make arbitrary associations – such as that imposed by the "We Want What You Have" stunt – more of a glue for its various stories than any esoteric link, even though a suitcase secreted in a wall supplies a neat Victorian flourish. Zbigniew, the stalwart Polish builder, finds this box of tricks. By now, he appears as something of a London-fiction stereotype, with his upright bemusement at his hosts' selfish and lazy ways. But he also serves as a vital human artery that allows Lanchester to segue from house to house, yarn to yarn. Another threshold-crosser is the sharp-witted Zimbabwean traffic-warden, Quentina. Her failed bid for asylum, miserable existence in a hostel, and looming deportation, take us for once into the true lower depths.

All London life is not – and can't be – here. Capital's preface alerts us to the flight of the old working- and lower-middle class from its neighbourhood. Matya notes that she and Zbigniew count as "servant-class". The Kamals and Petunia aside, the novel takes as its focus a fragile elite attended by recent migrants. Most of the middling sort have departed from this imaginary Pepys Road. Perhaps you might find more of them left in south London's actual Pepys Road, just a little to the east on Telegraph Hill.

The novel's sheer conscientiousness means that, in its scrupulous attention to the costs, the kit and the trends, it can feel a bit like bricklaying. Its prose has a long view and a measured tread; it tells as much as it shows. It can trudge where it should skip, but – conversely – Lanchester seldom skimps or botches. The structure stands firm and whole, with scarcely a splinter in its carpentry (though I did wonder about the unfeasibly swift probate process on page 364). Yet it misses out on some of the demotic zip and swing of dialogue that lovers of London fiction have enjoyed from Dickens and Wells through to Kureishi and Zadie Smith. It's notable that brief squalls of unruly energy gather around minor players – Roger's wolfish deputy Mark; Zbigniew's volatile girlfriend Davina; the kingpin scammer who illegally hires Quentina – but that the gaze moves swiftly on. Other writers would have lingered.

On the other hand, London bricklaying has often built a robust, warm and inviting habitation. It does so here. True, the Mr Bennett world of "stuff" and property counts for more in Capital than Mrs Brown-like states of "pure being", such as that in which the dying Petunia floats "like a boat drifting away from the dock". But, as an overview of and epitaph for a deeply materialistic spell, that tilt does fit the spec. Like Roger, sacked and broke but still upbeat, we quit this frantic era without much nostalgia. And, all the while, the so-solid houses bide their time, "waiting to stage a new production".

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