‘I’m very interested in obliviousness’, John Lanchester remarked early in yesterday evening’s conversation with Vicky Pryce about his latest novel, Capital. Obliviousness of various sorts, but primarily of the bankers and other wealthy Londoners who, circa 2005-6, seemed to evince a strangely a-historical blindness about what was to come. Lanchester claimed that he knew a collapse was inevitable, in some form or another – his prescience was such that he began his financial crisis novel fully three years before the events themselves began to unfold. And it is the oblivious that history will always judge most harshly, he says, a task commenced mid-crisis by his book Whoops!, something that had grown ‘like a benign tumour’ on his work as a novelist, occupying the space between finishing the first draft of Capital and editing it.
Lanchester is not, as he freely admits, an economist in any sense. But he is possessed of the ability to explain rather than obfuscate, to cut through economist-speak and ‘tell the story’ of the crisis, which has a narrative shape. The talk drifted at this point towards analogy between the two worlds, finance and fiction, without labouring the connection. Too much detail will kill a novel as surely as too many numbers will bewilder the lay reader. ‘You can do absolutely anything you want in fiction, but you can’t explain. Research can be a dangerous thing.’
Capital is a microcosm novel: one London street, Pepys road in Clapham, standing for the whole city. A mixture of diversity and unfriendliness highlights the paradox that London is an ‘open city’ (rather than a closed one – exactly what is meant by this distinction is unclear, but presumably an attitude towards immigration is part of it), and yet is atomised, having very little sense of community. We don’t know our neighbours, and this type of obliviousness constitutes a form of good manners.
The experience of coming to London from an elsewhere in pursuit of ‘the London dream’ makes a good subject for a novel – most of the residents of Pepys Road aren’t born Londoners – and it might also be a bit like writing, it is suggested. For Lanchester, born in Hamburg and growing up in Hong Kong, arriving in London as a young man made him in some sense an immigrant to the culture, despite his English citizenship. The link between this experience and his profession is not coincidental, he stressed: ‘Every writer I know has some displacement in their lives’.
At the heart of all this, though, is money, contained in Capital’s punning title along with the sense of the city with which it is so entwined. The interesting thing about wealth for Lanchester is that beyond a certain quantity it assumes an abstract, paradoxically immaterial character at odds with the materialism it permits. An index of value, but also a kind of passion which has a mystic, not-fully-understood allure, much like the global markets Whoops! attempts to clarify.
Finally, we are left with the cautiously optimistic notion that economically flat times might be in some ways more interesting than eras of affluent confidence. Periods of relative penury may be more significant in terms of the inner lives of ordinary people, Lanchester suggests, and valuable political and artistic creativity could be the result. Perhaps Capital marks a beginning of this intriguing new moment of British history.