Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Capital


Novels like this are often referred to as a state of the union. They're a comprehensive, expansive and panoramic view of the current status quo, not just culturally but politically and economically. State of the union novels are multiplying thanks to the utter ease of access to information and the 21st century phenomenon of feeling connected despite geographic or economic differences.

John Lanchester's Capital is a state of the union novel about the economic crisis of 2008. Its focus is on a particular street in an upper middle class neighbourhood in London, and its various inhabitants. Because this novel is trying aggressively to be current, its cast is ethnically and socially diverse, such as a traffic warden seeking asylum from Zimbabwe or a beautiful but poor Hungarian nanny working for a white and rich trader living beyond his means.

The title of Capital refers to both London as the capital of its country and to capital as money. In terms of being a state of the union novel, Lanchester frames his examination of the current age in terms of money. Everything that occurs in this novel is related to or determined by the accumulation of wealth or the lack thereof.

Everybody in this novel is driven by money. Either to acquire more, or to lose it by consumption. There's a Polish painter who takes on work so that he can eventually move back to his place of birth and work with his father. There's a daughter, recently bereaved of her mother, who decides to sell the house of her childhood because of the staggering increase in value in the past few years. There's the wife of the trader who spends vicariously in order to make herself feel better about her deteriorating marriage.

If a pattern is immediately becoming clear, that is my intent. One of the biggest problems with Capital, and to a lesser extent, the state of the union genre itself, is that characters rarely rise above the ignoble fact of being a type. This is especially true of the trader's wife, Arabella. She and Roger have enjoyed a comfortable living, but as outside economic problems begin to pressure their family, Lanchester explores how both cope. In the most obvious way possible, Arabella sticks to conspicuous consumption (a phrase actually used in the novel) and Roger indulges in the possibility of an affair with his Hungarian nanny.

Since Roger and Arabella are essentially the central characters, I don't think it's entirely unfair of me to use them as examples of the novel's central and fatal weakness.

In order to do that, I am going to call Lanchester's novel a post-postcolonial novel. Postcolonial literature, if you'll allow me a didactic tangent, is defined as art that responds to the power dynamic resulting from imperial conquest and domination. The art and literature reflects and reacts to the reality of the power dynamic, and usually it is from the perspective of what is called the subaltern, or the colonized end of the dynamic.

Capital is a post-postcolonial novel because instead of worrying about the effects of imperialism through the lens of the subaltern or the immigrant, the novel instead examines an equalization thanks to globalization. Not a literal economic equalization, but certainly, narratively speaking, Roger and the immigrant characters are on equal footing.

Ostensibly, this is a side effect of what is called hyperlink fiction, in that with so many characters of varying social backgrounds being portrayed, it is inevitable that the ensemble as a whole takes center stage rather than any particular character.

It is post-postcolonial in that instead of charting the inevitable collapse of imperial rule, whether literal or figurative, the narrative equalizes the subaltern characters with the white imperial rulers (figuratively speaking) by giving them equal time in the spotlight.

It is a careful and deliberate attempt to be fair that creates this sense of the post-postcolonial. The narrator is self-consciously allowing each voice a chance to speak, regardless of how interesting or important that voice is to the narrative. There's a subtle difference between this and postcolonial literature. The latter purposefully gives voice to the voiceless. The post-postcolonial gives a voice to everybody. In the history of literature, the scales have always tipped towards the ones in power. Postcolonial literature attempts to shifts the scales. Post-postcolonial makes them even.

As aforementioned, this is due to globalization, and even to the genre itself of the state of the union novel. Some of this discussion might seem superfluous or even obvious, but this is important to the logic of my criticism. If the novel truly wishes to be current and expertly capture the state of the union, then it is important to put the novel in context with the world that it attempts to convey. Globalization is an important but unexamined part of the novel.

Instead of focusing on how the world's finances have shaped the London of 2008, Lanchester looks to how it affects the microcosm, using a cast of types to do so.

Despite the equalization of narrative in the post-postcolonial, Roger and Arabella are the hub upon which the wheel of Capital spins. Roger opens and closes the novel, with the first and final paragraphs being devoted to money. This is compounded by most of the other characters having their relationships in varying degrees to the trader and his wife.

Thus, as Roger and Arabella represent both the inherent failing of the imperial ruler in the financial collapse of 2008, they also represent, for this review, the utter collapse of the novel. In what appears to be a gross assumption on the part of Lanchester, Roger and Arabella are offered as typical representations of the upper class. The assumption is that all members of this particular class are engaging in, or rather are obsessed with mindless consumption.

There's a kind of tentative judgement on the part of the narrator, a sort of weak chastising for the circumstances of the trader's class. Essentially, this amounts to a lazy and generalized to the point of useless moral: empty consumption is bad.

This is the monochromatic kind of moral examination that only children's literature and comic books tend to indulge in. "Rape is bad you guys" or "revenge is never fulfilling you guys", as if they are world-shaking insights discovered by a single person, when in reality, they are obvious things stumbled upon by adolescents.

And in Capital's case, the obviousness of the moral lesson is only exceeded by the obviousness of the plot's direction. As soon as Roger hires a nanny that the narrator is at pains to describe as beautiful, the outcome is clear: Roger will attempt adultery. As soon as the money problems begin to surface, the outcome is clear: Arabella will retreat into further consumerism as a defense mechanism.

Neither of these two things are interesting. Or at least, they can be if handled in a particularly nuanced or intelligent fashion. Capital suffers in my eyes because it follows from Ballard's Kingdom Come, a novel I quite liked. But this is not the only reason why Capital fails.

Capital fails because in its attempt to be fair to all voices, it relies on the most obvious of types in order to represent as panoramically as possible the current age. In its desire to be post-postcolonial in the globalized world, Capital resorts to plain character arcs and obvious plot machinations.

This isn't confined to Roger and Arabella. The honest, hardworking and resolutely honourable Polish painter finds money in the house he's renovating. What will he do? The Senegalese superstar football player is finally given a starting position, despite a childhood of economic and political strife - what will happen when he finally gets on the field? The Muslim shopkeeper's brother attends too attentively to the sermons of a possible radicalist? What will happen when he expresses too extremist of an opinion? If you answered that respectively, the Polish worker would feel guilt over not earning the money himself (because all Poles are hardworking unlike lazy British workers), the football player would be injured and have to fight a nasty insurance company, dashing his whole family's hopes at a comfortable life and the Muslim man would be detained for days in an inhumane prison, then you'd be correct. These are three (four if you count the trader and his wife) examples of types being aggressively deployed in a novel that's particularly obsessed with types.

Is it fair to condemn Capital for engaging in stereotypes and stereotypical plotting when all state of the union novels somehow manage to do the same? Yes of course. Other state of the union novels do the same, but not in conjunction with Capital's other faults.

If the plotting was irritating, the least a reader could expect is that it is told in an entertaining fashion. After all, it's not what story is being told, but how it is being told that matters. Unfortunately, Capital indulges in the plainest most nondescript prose I have ever read in an ostensibly high end novel. Lanchester's novel is not the work of an amateur, as it was reviewed in the Guardian, the New York Times and other reliable sources. So why is it that his prose is so absolutely plain?

Let's examine a rather telling bit. Early in the novel, Roger is expecting a lucrative Christmas bonus from his firm. The chapter opens with a detailed description of Roger's traditional "preparing for important events" routine, which includes moisturizing, grooming and other typically feminine pursuits. We are told Roger doesn't tell anybody about this because he fears appearing too feminine. Obviously I have a problem with this, but that's another post for another day. At the end of the routine, we have this clunker:
It was thus armoured that, on Friday 21 December [2008], Roger went into the conference room at Pinker Lloyd ready to open the envelope that would tell him what he would be getting for his bonus. Going into the room, with its white noise switched on so that it was scientifically impossible to eavesdrop, and with the walls turned opaque for the meeting, Roger felt confident, fit and healthy, braced for whatever would come.
Superficially, this isn't terrible prose. Unspectacular, but not terrible. Upon closer inspection, this paragraph falls under the weight of its redundancies. First of all, this is a hundred pages into the novel, and we have spent all of our Roger-focused time on the Christmas bonus. The novel opens with Roger imagining what he will do with his bonus (pay off bills, go on lavish holidays). We were also told in the first few Roger chapters that the office had the white noise machine and the walls could turn opaque. It was part of the minimal physical description. To have it repeated again for no other reason than to remind the reader that it exists is somewhat irritating. If you expect me to remember all these people, why won't you trust I remember what his office looks like? More specifically, I've already read what the white noise machine does - why waste the clause explaining it again? Isn't its function immediately obvious from its name?

However, the most telling crime in this paragraph is the final clause. We know Roger is confident thanks to previous chapters (we are told he calculates a million pounds) and his behaviour, so it's redundant to hear it again, but not egregiously so. What is unforgivable is that Roger is "braced for whatever would come". This is clearly untrue considering that a) Roger is "confident" and b) we've spent at least thirty pages reading about his high hopes. Thus, this last clause is not just plain and boring, but it is inconsistent with the previous paragraphs detailing his confidence-building routine. If he is confident, arrogantly so, then he is not "braced for whatever would come". That phrase implies Roger won't be devastated when, in the most obvious plot turn the novel could possibly spin, his bonus is tiny. Capital couldn't surprise me even if the author had physically shown up at my door with a troupe of stereotypes collected from BBC soaps.

After all this excoriating, one would naturally ask if there was any element of the novel that I enjoyed. Mostly, I liked how breezy the novel is. It's terrifically paced, with short sharp chapters, similar to modern thrillers in the post-Dan Brown world, but without the irritating shocks being obstinately deployed. It's a novel that you can read in a couple sittings, despite its 500 plus page count. It's never daunting due to its ease of prose and its sheer accessibility.

These are all very subtle backhanded compliments you might say, all of them carefully worded to inflect a bit of damage. Truthfully, I admire Lanchester's ability to keep me reading, despite my issues with the novel which were immediately apparent to me. Lanchester got me to finish a novel I obviously disliked, so he can hardly be criticized for writing an inaccessible tome.

When reviewing a state of the union novel like this, it's helpful to conclude with the obvious question of whether or not the novel was successful in accurately capturing the state of the union in question. Luckily, I can wrap up this review with a positive note: Lanchester seems to have conveyed a believable world, grounded in the economic realities of 2008, even if to do so, he was armed with a litany of stereotypes. Summarily, I didn't hate the novel, but I certainly did not like the novel. Mostly, I tolerated it. This is not something any author would want to hear of the fruit of their labour. Even if I wrote over 2,000 words about it.

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