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We Want What You Have

Chris, Standley Lake

If you’ll indulge me—and let’s face it, if you’re reading this, you’re already indulging me—I’d like to start with an imaginative exercise. This shouldn’t scare you, because you read books, and what is reading if not an imaginative exercise? The act of reading releases a book’s creative energy, like reciting an incantation or spell whose power lies dormant until its words are spoken aloud. Reading allows us to become the co-authors of a book, because everything the story contains is imagined differently by each reader. So in this sense, the little exercise we’re about to undertake is not so different than reading a book.

Imagine a city as a book that is read differently by each of its ten million inhabitants. Now imagine a particular street in that city as a character in the book, and suppose that this street, as much as any other, represents the joys, perils and problems of the city at large.  

OK, got it? Well, so has John Lanchester, whose newest book, Capital, advances the same premise: the city is London, and the street is Pepys Road. It’s a typical London street, whose houses (like many in London) were built in the aftermath of the Second World War, when much of the city’s housing stock had been reduced to rubble by German bombs. In response, the postwar government set about building thousands of new homes, most of them in the neo-Victorian style that typifies much London architecture today.  

The area of Pepys Road was traditionally working class, but as the city expanded, the middle class, in search of affordable housing, arrived and poshed up the place a bit. They eventually paved the way for the appearance of the well-heeled, who completed the process that most of us call gentrification. If you’ve ever lived in a city yourself, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  

But the idyllic calm of Pepys Road is disturbed when its residents begin receiving a series of strange postcards in their letterboxes. In fact, each postcard is not a postcard at all, but a photograph of the person’s front door. On the reverse is written the following message: we want what you have. The residents eventually complain to police and an investigation is opened, but there are no leads, little evidence, no apparent motive, and beyond the vaguely menacing tone of the postcards themselves, no real commission of a crime.

Set against the background of this persistent tension is the fact that it’s the summer of 2008, and the house of cards that is the derivatives market is beginning to tremble. The very wealth that turned Pepys Road from a working class East End neighborhood to an unaffordable playground of the rich is evaporating with astonishing speed. In this way, Capital is a bit like Anton Chekhov’s famous play The Cherry Orchard, in which an over-leveraged patrician family carries on as if nothing is different, taking afternoon tea and engaging in inconsequential small talk, even as their beloved estate is foreclosed upon by its creditors.

But as a book, two things make Capital more than a simple tale of upper-class hubris. First, there are no main characters: Capital is populated by a fantastic ensemble cast, with no character more central than any other. And in a rare display of literary virtuosity, Lanchester assembles an array of fascinating characters, with no obvious weak links. Each character’s story, if expanded, could serve as the basis of its own novel.

For me, the most interesting aspect of Capital is how Lanchester writes those characters who are not residents of Pepys Road--those who come to service the needs of the rich. There is the Polish builder who renovates the houses of Pepys Road, hoping to save enough to fund the retirement of his elderly father in Warsaw; the Hungarian nanny who relieves her employers of the burden of raising their own children; the Zimbabwean asylum-seeker who finds illegal work as a meter maid, doing the ironic job of ticketing luxury cars whose sticker prices are greater than ten years of her wages. The fact that much of the servicing of the rich falls to recent immigrants and refugees, many from countries that were formerly part of the British Empire, allows the reader to realize that colonialism is not dead – it’s simply assumed a different form. And you can see this not just in the London of John Lanchester’s novel, but in the London that, at this very moment, lies just on the other side of the Atlantic.

Capital by John Lanchester.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2012.