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Bonfire of the Banalities

30 Mar 2012 By Peter Thal Larsen

Banking is fiction’s hidden profession. Despite decades of financial expansion, novelists and playwrights have struggled to imagine a contemporary Shylock or Augustus Melmotte, the shadowy star of Anthony Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now”. A quarter of a century has passed since Tom Wolfe dreamt up Sherman McCoy, the bond trader who personified the arrogance and greed of an earlier boom in “The Bonfire of the Vanities”. With the crisis wreckage still smouldering, the characters in most contemporary novels are more likely to be found robbing a bank than working for one.

Roger Yount, the anti-hero of John Lanchester’s “Capital”, is therefore a rare breed. As head of the currency trading department at a mid-sized City of London investment bank in late 2007, he is well-placed to anticipate the imminent market storm. Except that Yount, who has a tenuous grasp of the complex strategies used by his traders, doesn’t see it coming. Instead, he sits at his desk trying to calculate the size of his bonus. Then he lists the expenditure – mortgages, private schools, nannies, second homes, skiing holidays, taxis – that will consume his cash. Sherman McCoy complained he was “going broke on a million dollars a year”. Yount’s lifestyle requires the same figure – in sterling.

Lanchester, whose previous book, “Whoops!”, was an entertaining explanation of the crisis, does a good job of capturing the atmosphere inside a modern investment bank with its multinational collection of (mostly) men, engaged in the meritocratic pursuit of wealth. Privately educated, well-mannered, and British, Yount epitomises the entitled, Land Rover-driving breed that colonised London’s more desirable residential areas in the last decade, making them all but unaffordable for everyone else.

Lanchester shares the modern Londoner’s obsession with property values. The book opens with a detailed description of the homes in Pepys Road, the “ordinary street in the capital” where Yount lives with his wife, Arabella, and two young children. Built by the Victorians for the lower middle classes, the terraced houses have been so pumped up by cheap credit that they are now worth millions: “Having a house in Pepys Road was like being in a casino in which you were guaranteed to be a winner”.

Yet in its attempt to look behind all the doors of Pepys Road, the novel loses its way. Lanchester introduces us to a bewildering cross-section of characters: the Pakistani family who run the local newsagent’s, the Polish builder, the African Premier League footballer, the illegal immigrant working as a traffic warden, the old woman dying of a brain tumour, and the Banksy-style artist whose main selling point is his anonymity.

It’s a valiant attempt to capture the diversity of life in the capital. However, Lanchester struggles to manage the different story lines. His solution is to carve up the book into many small sections – its 600 pages are divided into 106 chapters – and jump between characters. Unfortunately, these snapshots reduce most of the players to two-dimensional stereotypes. Moreover, despite their physical proximity, they barely interact. This, presumably, is Lanchester’s point, but it hardly makes for a coherent narrative.

In the confusion, Yount gets less attention than he deserves. Though he ambles through situations rich with potential for exploring the anthropology of London investment bankers – a shooting weekend in Norfolk, a team-building poker night, a charity dinner – the scenes feel half-finished, as if Lanchester is too impatient to move on to the next section. Even Yount’s downfall, when it inevitably arrives, proves something of an anticlimax.

Parts of “Capital” will resonate with anyone who has lived or worked in London over the past decade. Whether it will appeal to readers without direct, recent experience of the city – and the City – is less clear. Either way, Roger Yount is unlikely to join the thinly-populated pantheon of famous fictional financiers. Perhaps that will only be expanded when the rubble of the crisis has finally been cleared.


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