Publishing is not very well equipped to keep up with the here and now. Events happen in real time, and once a writer has hit upon an idea, digested all the elements, found the ‘voice’ and structure of a fiction, the here and now can already be the distant past. This has led to a strange disconnect when it comes to what we consider to be contemporary fiction and what historical.
Is The Damned Utd (published 2006, but set in the ’60s and ’70s) a contemporary or historical novel? Is The Line of Beauty (published 2004, but set in the ’80s) a novel of these times or of the past? What about Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot (2011/set in 1981) and Jonathan Coe’s ’70s novel, The Rotters’ Club (2001)?
No first claim on any of these books would see them championed as great examples of the historical imagination but for all their contemporary chutzpah they are just that. Historical novels; albeit so authentically and familiarly conceived they feel just about as modern as the novel can be. The novel, it seems, is condemned to languish behind the times. So how can we be convinced by its continued claims to vitality?
Gordon Burn, the most radical of recent British writers, cut to the heart of the matter – as ever – when he conceived of his ‘news as a novel’, Born Yesterday. Written over the course of a 2007 summer dominated by medieval-seeming foot and mouth outbreaks, the ascension of Gordon Brown, and the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and the distasteful media eruption around the whole, the book attempted to capture and publish in real time the character and temper of the nation. More than anything, I suspect, it represented Burn’s frustration with fiction; its ‘terminal catching-upness’ – I can imagine him saying this in his soft Geordie voice. A novelist can not record as a diarist, photographer or filmmaker might; a novelist is condemned to walk the hallways of the past, however recent, in the hope his sympathetic gifts are such we are fooled into thinking it is absolutely a novel of these times.
John Lanchester’s Capital, published by Faber in March, represents an attempt to write a novel for, and about, today. From very early on in Capital, after a glorious introductory vignette which captures the biography of a south London street, Pepys Road, over the century just gone, the language of the novel signifies quite clearly, where we are:
Foreign exchange trading was based on the manipulation of immensely complicated mathematical formulae, which allowed the bank to take subtle, lucrative positions that amounted to betting on both sides of the trade at the same time. As long as anything not too untoward happened – anything outside the parameters and predictions of your bets – and as long as algorithms were correct, you were guaranteed to make money. It was a law of the business that you could not make money without taking some risk, but it was also true, thanks to the wonders of modern financial instruments, that you could manage the risk almost out of existence.
At the heart of this large-scale gambling culture is the novel’s central figure, Roger Yount, who we soon learn is expecting – nay, relying on – a seven figure bonus, not to improve his lifestyle, rather to maintain it. We ought to hate, resent and blame Roger for what we know in the novel is just around the corner – the crash of 2008. But we are denied this pleasure and it is Lanchester’s skill that we find ourselves if not cheering Roger on then certainly wishing him no ill. After all real life, on a real London street, rarely corresponds to the bloated stereotypes we are presented with every day.
Roger is one of a dozen or more major characters which give Capital the intense flavour of a novel self-consciously written as a reflection of life lived in London today – well, at least, four years ago.
What impressed me so much when John passed me this novel almost a year ago, was its immediacy, its relevance. Here was a world I recognised as my own: a south London street peopled by bankers and their haut-wives, Polish builders, Pakistani shopkeepers, African traffic wardens and octogenarian English ladies, struggling to make the daily trip from house to Tesco Metro and back. A world, a city, a street, transformed by money, investment and greed. A city bent on consumption and self-destruction, ouroborus-like. A city where any vague idea of a sensible relationship between time and space and value long disappeared. A portrait of the most ludicrously expensive City in the world. A city where the twin legends of the two Dicks – Whittington and Turpin – have come to dominate, grotesquely, the collective pysche. A city so comically top-heavy, our only option is to continue to hope that ‘Weeble-like’ the whole edifice will continue to ‘wobble’ but ‘not fall down’.
I have merely scratched the surface of Capital‘s many-stranded narratives (terrorism and art-terrorism are the narrative’s second and third columns alongside finance), and it is receiving the pre-publication notices publishers often fantasise about. While Capital must by its very nature be categorised as a ‘historical novel’, it is perhaps as close as we are going to get to a novel about life in London today. A city of fear, aspiration, envy, greed and perhaps, just, Olympian spirit. Fiction may not be capable of telling the story of these times, in the moment. But very occasionally a novelist serves up a slice of our recent past that feels, well, quite immediate enough.
Capital is published in hardback and ebook on March 1st.