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(New Yorker review)
John Lanchester's recent novel, "Capital," is full of sharply drawn characters, men and women living at different points on the class spectrum of modern England, whose lives intersect in a series of increasingly fraught episodes. Yet one of its most memorable characters isn't a person at all, but, rather, a street.
In the book's brief, shimmering prologue, Lanchester lingers for a moment on "an ordinary-looking street in South London" called Pepys Road, a name that tellingly alludes to Samuel Pepys, a seventeenth-century bureaucrat whose decade-long diary, begun in 1660, has in the years since filled out the historical portrait of London. "Capital" is not a diary, nor is it, though Lanchester is a fine journalist in addition to being a novelist, essentially journalistic - but it is nonetheless animated by the urge to catalogue and inform. It is a big realist Novel of the Now, and one of its aims is to capture a specific moment in time. That moment is London in 2007 and 2008, on either side of the global financial meltdown, and Pepys Road is at once an illustration of the pre-crash condition of ever-increasing real-estate wealth and a shorthand for the patterns of behavior that built to that tenuous apex.
The street had once been home to lower-middle-class young families, then later to recent immigrants from the Caribbean. Over time, wealthier families began to discover it, charmed by architectural qualities that previous generations of similarly positioned people had found unimpressive, and the address improved. All this led to the end of the last decade, when,
For the first time in history, the people who lived in the street were, by global and maybe even local standards, rich. The thing which made them rich was the very fact that they lived in Pepys Road. They were rich simply because of that, because all of the houses in Pepys Road, as if by magic, were now worth millions of pounds.
Up to this point, Lanchester seems to be using Pepys Road to tell a familiar story of urban gentrification. Yet subtly, with the invocation of the phrase "as if by magic," and then much more explicitly, he brings the houses and the street itself to an unsettling kind of life, like that of unwatched toys at night:
Once the parents had gone off to work and the children off to school you saw fewer people in the street in the daytime, except builders; but the houses had things brought to them all day. As the houses had got more expensive, it was as if they had come alive, and had wishes and needs of their own.
And then, after listing the seemingly endless string of deliveries that come to the houses throughout the day - laundry, packages, milk - he writes, "The houses were now like people, and rich people at that, imperious, with needs of their own that they were not shy about having serviced."
Their owners, meanwhile, have taken to ordering the construction of finished basements, and so contractors arrive to excavate, filling truck after truck with compressed earth taken from under these hulking houses. It is as if the houses themselves are belching out some dark and evil thing.
To this scene comes, on an early summer morning, an enigmatic and vaguely sinister figure in a hooded sweatshirt, who is filming the exteriors of the houses on the street with a digital video camera. (The prologue is, in a way, like a cinematographer's extended exterior shot.) Soon after, residents of Pepys Road begin receiving postcards: on the front they feature a photograph of the recipient's front door, and on the back, the words "We Want What You Have."
Many reviews of "Capital" have identified its Dickensian scope and narrative concerns - and the comparison is apt, not simply because Charles Dickens, too, was a novelist with a journalist's eye, but because Lanchester's novel follows the Dickensian model of spinning a minor solar system of characters—young and old, rich and poor, aspiring and despairing - around a dense star of money (the idea of it, its loss and gain), and in so doing making an indelible statement about culture at large. But there is another, narrower connection between "Capital" and Dickens that is linked to the mysterious photographer's obsession with the front doors of the houses on Pepys Road. As a young man, Dickens gained notoriety as the writer of a series of urban vignettes, known as 'Sketches by Boz,' in which he documented his rambles through London. In one such sketch, "Our Next-Door Neighbour," published in 1836, he seizes on an object of domestic ornamentation and muses on how it reflects not merely the taste of its owner but that imagined owner's physical, mental, and even ethical characteristics:
We are very fond of speculating as we walk through a street, on the character and pursuits of the people who inhabit it; and nothing so materially assists us in these speculations as the appearance of the house doors. The various expressions of the human countenance afford a beautiful and interesting study; but there is something in the physiognomy of street-door knockers, almost as characteristic, and nearly as infallible. Whenever we visit a man for the first time, we contemplate the features of his knocker with the greatest curiosity, for we well know, that between the man and his knocker, there will inevitably be a greater or less degree of resemblance and sympathy.
For Dickens, the door knocker, normally considered in merely functional terms, becomes (rather cheekily, but still) the physical manifestation of its owner's character. We can almost imagine the knocker, through a "Christmas Carol" - like ghostly transformation, actually coming to resemble the faces of the men and women who occupy these houses. Dickens later laments that as bells were fast becoming the fashion in London, rendering knockers obsolete, he would soon have to develop other means of ready-made characterization. He writes, "We hastened home; and fancying we foresaw in the swift progress of events, its entire abolition, resolved from that day forward to vent our speculations on our next-door neighbours in person."
Dickens was a master of the street scene - of taking readers down alleys and up staircases into his characters' lives. Yet rather than using the various trappings of exterior scenes as a means to get to know the people inside, here he grants an inanimate object the power of life, just as Lanchester does with the houses on Pepys Road. The houses of Lanchester's characters have come to life because they have become so valuable, so essential to the existence and self-worth of their owners. They are, he writes, "central actors in their own right."
Dickens prefigures a modern condition: the city dweller's near obsession with the living conditions of his neighbors, and the often self-defeating eagerness to get a look inside the places they live. The objects of our neighbors' lives (their couches and chairs and wall-hangings and kitchen apparatuses) seem to matter to us more than, say, their character or quiet longings. Dickens's mock-despair at the disappearance of the door knocker springs from the recognition that he'll have to actually go inside people's houses to learn a bit about their lives. It is easier, and perhaps more comforting, simply to judge from the outside and leave it at that. (When we do venture inside, the story gets more complicated; the great joke of "Capital" is that when the characters receive the menacing postcards, they each can't imagine anyone wanting what they have - the burdens, the anxieties, the heartache.)
"Capital," in its use of real estate as the key that unlocks a set of characters' values, resembles several other sturdy realist novels that have come out lately, which straddle the period of economic rise and ruin of the recent past: Adam Haslett's "Union Atlantic," Jonathan Dee's "The Privileges," and Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom." In each of these novels, characters gain and lose vast amounts of money - money that they earned either by playing by the era's bent and unjust rules or, even more starkly, by criminal means. While, as in "Capital," not all of the characters are rich, the wealthy ones are the central actors, the drivers of the narrative. And during this period, money flowed in and out of a principal source: real estate.
If the opening scene of "Capital" evokes Dickens, it also bears a striking resemblance to the first chapter of Franzen's "Freedom," which introduces the central family in the story, the Berglunds, through an extended discussion of their lives in the gentrifying neighborhood of Ramsey Hill, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Like the residents of Pepys Road, the Berglunds will come see the value of their home skyrocket, making them winners of the modern real-estate lottery. Just as Pepys Road takes on human characteristics, so does the Berglunds' Barrier Street, which Franzen even makes, at one point, the active subject of a sentence: "Barrier Street knew Mrs. Berglund from her visits at Christmastime ..." But unlike "Capital," in which the winners are about to become losers, if only temporarily, we learn about the Berglunds at an earlier stage of the development of their street, with the protagonist Patty cast as an urban pioneer:
Tall, ponytailed, absurdly young, pushing a stroller past stripped cars and broken beer bottles and barfed-upon old snow, she might have been carrying all the hours of her day in the string bags that hung from her stroller. Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of baby-encumbered errands; ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, "The Silver Palate Cookbook," cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint, and then "Goodnight Moon," then Zinfandel. She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street.
Instead of a street taking on a life of its own, one vaguely hostile to its inhabitants, here it becomes an outward manifestation of its most prominent resident, an extension of her upper-bourgeois taste, habits, and personal characteristics. "She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street" is one of the novel's most powerful lines, both because it sets up a precise bit of social commentary, and because, were it really to be true, it represents a chilling shallowness - as if a person were just the consumer goods and interior décor they surrounded themself with. Meanwhile, Patty's values, as represented by her real-estate situation ("The Berglunds paid nothing for their Victorian and then killed themselves for ten years renovating it"), comes into sharp contrast with her neighbor's, whose home renovations yield an addition that is "like a giant utilitarian boat shed with three plain windows punctuating its expanses of vinyl siding." Like Dickens's door knocker, it is almost enough to see these two adjacent homes to know everything about the differences between their inhabitants, and thus to predict the conflict that is to come. (Though it should be said that when Patty loses her connection to her house and street, we see that she is far less composed, and less neatly defined, than these signifiers suggest.)
Just as the opening of "Capital" offers a brisk retelling of the London real-estate boom and "Freedom" lays out an authoritative discourse on the particulars of gentrification in America, so, too, does Adam Haslett's "Union Atlantic" spell out, in the same distanced, diagnostic tone—as if narrating a socioeconomic fairy tale for adults - the conditions that led its finance-whiz protagonist Doug Fanning, a rich man with a shady past, to build what turns out to be a demonic dream home in outside of Boston:
After the tech bubble burst in 2000, the Federal Reserve had cut interest rates, making mortgages cheap, and thus opening the door for all that frightened capital to run for safety into houses.
Haslett's description of the mansion's enviable features - its cavernous rooms, futuristic security system, and master bathroom with "chilled marble" floors, double sinks and showers, and both a Jacuzzi and a bathtub accented with slate - functions as a handy form of characterization, representing its protagonist's aimlessly and at times angrily materialistic nature.
In "The Privileges," Jonathan Dee also gives us a robust description of a mega-mansion, that obtuse brick-and-mortar manifestation of new wealth, when the book's central couple, the Moreys, travel to Connecticut to visit the husband Adam's boss, and find him living in "a white Regency-style mansion so gigantic and out of place it looked like a theme park. It sprawled across an expensively produced clearing as if it had been dropped there from the air." We learn more about the man who lives here - his history, his desires, his foibles, and his motivations - but our notion of his character never strays far from the image of his theme-park house. In each of these novels, a family's house may be its castle, but it is also its mirror.
To all this, one might note that there is little exceptional in the way these novels use real estate—houses and their neighborhoods - as a central element of characterization and a propellant force for plot. The novel in English - from Richardson to Austen to Dickens and all the way up, and similarly among Americans from James to Wharton to Fitzgerald to, well, Franzen - might be said to be about real estate as much as it is about anything else. And as real estate was the principal generator of wealth in the pre-recession boom, it is perhaps natural that it forms the core of these novels about wealthy people of that time.
Furthermore, imbuing a street or a home with a quasi-human identity may not seem to be much of a fictional contrivance; houses have always been known to come to life in fiction, if often only in a character's mind. Think of Thornfield Hall's attic or the House of Usher. And it makes sense: we don't just identify ourselves with our houses, streets, and neighborhoods. We invest these things with the psychic and emotional effort that we put into our human relations - often too much, and more than we can later make sense of. (For more on that, there is Sarah Payne Stuart's fine essay about owning a house in Concord, Massachusetts.) Sometimes this connection can be seen as an example of a crassly materialistic relationship to our daily lives. An address gives much more away about a person, at least among those who worry about such things, than anyone would likely want to admit.
Still, there is a sense that these novels - though clearly diagnostic of a cultural malaise, and populated by characters whose economic upending we greet with satisfaction - are playing both sides of a game. On one hand, they use the prevailing obsession with real estate as a way to reveal their characters' moral shortcomings - their obsession with the quality of their houses, their pressing need to compete, the essential meaninglessness of their constant renovations, as if desperate to erase history and refashion homes as an outward manifestation of a self set free from the past. Yet, in the same gesture, the writers manage to reinforce our modern sense that the appearance of our houses, and the taste and class that they represent, are among the defining elements of modern selfhood. Are these books, then, themselves symptomatic of a culture that too readily conflates where and how one lives with who one is? Perhaps the question does not have one answer over another; since writers are embedded within the culture they appraise, it is maybe inescapable that they will at once undermine and reinforce that culture's wider values. (What is missing in this literature of the Great Recession, then, may be a better representation of the perspective of other classes, for whom a home, street, or neighborhood might mean something very different.)
Or perhaps these novelists conjure images of wealth to at once ensnare and repel us, to remind us that though we may scorn their materialistic and morally wayward protagonists, there remains a part of us that, just like the sinister prankster in "Capital," wants what they have. We know it is unseemly to gawp at all this luxury, even as we may marvel at the skilled novelist's ability to bring a McMansion or multi-million-dollar urban townhouse to life. Despite the obvious authorial notes of satire, and even outright condemnation, it is difficult to read these catalogues of domestic wealth without feeling, if not necessarily lust, then at least a bit of envy or wonder. Just as we are eager to spy our neighbors' digs, so do we read about fictional examples of high living with a quickened pulse. Maybe we are all, in our way, like Daisy Buchanan, who exclaims, at first seeing Jay Gatsby's great mansion (the ur-house of American literature), "That huge place there?"
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