Friday, 6 March 2015
Capital by John Lanchester
[Smitty is an anonymous conceptual artist]
Going to art parties was something Smitty loved to do. There wasn’t too much chance he would be recognised, even among an art-world crowd, because among that crowd there was a rumour – a rumour started by Smitty, as it happened, via a hint he’d got his dealer to drop – that Smitty was black. The existence of that rumour was Smitty’s single favourite thing in the whole entire world.
So his identity was protected here. At the same time, he was careful not to do the party thing too often, because if he did do it too often, people might start to wonder who he was; might start to wonder properly, not just to be faintly, briefly, idly curious... So he always dressed up in a suit and tie, a not-too-smart formal suit, not a wide-boy-at-play suit, and if anyone asked him what he did, he said he was an accountant who worked for the artists’ insurers. That shut people up and made them go away pretty fast. ..
Smitty was…. checking out the talent in the room – the talent in all senses. [He] recognised about a third of the people in the room; that was about average. ..The dealers were for the most part wearing expensive versions of smart casual, the artists were carefully superscruffy, and the civilians wore suits.
observations: Capital was touted as a state-of-the-nation book: Lanchester was going to tell us about London, about money and about Britain by describing events and people in one South London road in 2007 and 2008. It’s not a bad idea – roads do exist containing valuable houses and very varying kinds of people, and theoretically that could give you an entertaining and convincing picture of some aspects of city life.
But I didn’t think this worked, and am at a loss to know why it was so well-reviewed. I assumed it would be a page-turner, you would want to know what would happen to the characters, but I lost interest in most of them quite early on. There were small but niggling mistakes – the first couple of pages contained several odd repetitions, and a mention of ‘printer ribbons’ where you’d think cartridges must be meant. Later there are references to child-support in a context where child benefit seems more likely, and to children going to prep school at the age of 11. It doesn’t give you much faith in the great gobbets of research that are carefully plonked in throughout the book. The plotlines seem predictable and when they weren’t they were to the detriment of the plot (eg the fate of Roger). The would-be satire of the hilarious banker’s wife seemed overdrawn and pointless. (Really? Christmas?) It wasn’t at all clear how one character came up with half a million pounds – it seemed flatout impossible.
There were a couple of moments I enjoyed – the asylum-seeker’s rant about residents getting upset about parking was hilarious and to-the-point and rang totally true, and there was a nice notion of ‘competitive tiredness’. But that wasn’t enough to show for a very long book full of very un-nuanced Asian shopkeepers, inept public schoolboys & East End wide boys, lovely Polish builders, lovely Hungarian nannies, and a wonderful old lady.
Much better books on London life have come from Amanda Craig: A Vicious Circle and Hearts and Minds are both far superior to this one.
There's another arty party featured in the entry for Brian Morton's A Window Across the River.
The picture – of a gallery opening in downtown Seattle – was taken by Joe Mabel, who uploaded it to Wikimedia Commons.