Book Review: Capital by John Lanchester

By The Banker | Book Reviews
3 Jan 2014
  • Sumo

I’ve been searching in the past few years for the best book to explain the 2008 Crisis, but I have yet to find it.

John Lanchester’s novel Capital presents the 2007 and 2008 pre-conditions for the crisis in London – soaring real estate values, extraordinary inequality, random good and bad fortune, injustice, and fundamental cultural misunderstandings.

Lanchester’s diverse London characters occupy the same space – a single, gentrifying block in London – but arrive from entirely different worlds. 

We meet the stand-in for pre-crisis London, the successful but clueless and doomed banker Roger, who finds his lifestyle nearly unaffordable at 1 million pounds per year. 

A Banksy-style performance artist, his mother, and his dying grandmother show a temporal cross-section of England, unable to communicate across generations.

Lanchester has a gift for cultural nuance in portraying four distinct immigrant stories: The Zimbabwean meter maid working and living illegally, the Polish contractor riding the home renovations wave to save money before returning home, the Pakistani shopkeeper and his extended family, and the gifted 17 year-old footballer from Senegal signed to an extraordinary professional contract.

With few exceptions[1] Lanchester has empathy for all of his characters as they each suffer an existential crisis concurrent with the financial crisis.

Lanchester employs a unifying plot hook – a semi-mysterious harassment campaign affecting all of the homeowners of the single London block – that doesn’t quite matter to the novel.  Neither the vague sense of dread the campaign engenders – nor the resolution of the harassment campaign – justify its prominence in most chapters.  Nevermind, though, because the novel does not need it. 

His sympathetic characters and gentle satire show us the way we live now, together in time and space but apart in everything else.

Capital does not explain the 2008 crisis, but it seems like an accurate time capsule of the “same street/different universe” world we occupy now – both before the crisis and since then.

Please see related post: Michael Lewis reviews Capital by John Lanchester.

Please also see related post: All Bankers Anonymous Book Reviews in one place.

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[1] Roger’s wife Arabella notably displays no redeemable features – just neglect, cluelessness, self-absorption, and conspicuous consumption.

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2 Comments

  1. Bob Mrotek says:

    The thing about the so called financial crisis is that for many people it was not news. They live in a perpetual financial crisis and saving their pennies for a rainy day is not going to help them. Here in México there are fifty million people who are just beginning to climb the “cuesta de enero”…the hill of January when they have to go hungry in order to redeem a wedding ring or whatever they pawned in order to buy their kids cheap plastic toys that were made in China and are given to the children on the Epiphany by “Los Reyes Magos”…The Three Kings. I have neither empathy nor sympathy for “poor” rich folks.

  2. ToddR says:

    Even though it was published on 2005, “The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own On” told me all I needed to know about how the political and financial mechanisms and incentive systems worked in concert to bring about the malaise the erupted in 2008.

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