The Genre That Dare Not Speak Its Name – Review: Capital
18 Saturday Mar 2017
Satire is the genre that dare not speak its name in British publishing right now, but it could hardly be more needed than it is today. The only problem is that real life seems to be more satirical than anything we can make up. Enter John Lanchester, who in his quiet, unassuming way, is writing fiction and non-fiction that spears the bad guys so cleverly that I wonder if they know they’ve been speared.
I’ve just been re-reading Capital – still his latest novel, although I’m amazed to find it’s five years since it first appeared – and it still holds up.
We focus in on a street in London, at the point when the economy is about to go belly-up, when the tensions are starting to show, when Londoners can’t quite believe how much their houses are now worth and when strange, vaguely threatening postcards are starting to drop through their letterboxes.
It’s a very readable read. The amusement is cleverly gentle rather than vicious, like ‘Private Eye’ or ‘The Thick of It’. The plot gradually envelops you as bankers grow nervous about their “essential” Christmas bonuses and illegal immigrants patrol the streets as parking attendants.
A panorama of London life see through one street
What’s so effective is that characters change and grow for the reader. You might start off disliking one character, only for him to reveal his human side as the story unfolds. There’s no rush to judgement. He has a very Dickensian way of creating engaging characters, full of energy and contradiction.
I also love the ambition – the panorama of London life as seen through this one fictional street.
John Lanchester seems to move easily between fiction and non-fiction in his work, and from long-form writing to articles, blogs and vlogs. I recommend, for example, his lovely, quietly funny video for the London Review of Books on trying out Amazon’s voice-controlled Echo for a friend. But I hope he doesn’t take too long to get back to writing more novels like this.