John Lanchester Interview: The Cost of the Cab – Camden New Journal
Mr Lanchester edges in out of the Clapham sunshine, unostentatious in old grey t-shirt and trainers. He’s friendly, chatting about having a sense of London only through the tube map (South East London is unknown territory), though there’s a note of reserve, too – a certain shying away, as if the world was turned up a bit too loudly. It’s a manner at odds with the brasher characters in his new novel, Capital, in whose lives conspicuous consumption is so powerful and defining an idea that even the houses they inhabit have become “imperious, with needs of their own”, demanding to be fed by a parade of delivery vans, pampered with make-overs and extensions, constantly worked on and attended to.
Despite chastising himself for laziness (in his memoir, Family Romance), Lanchester has had an impressively productive career. “I always felt I needed to have a day job if I wanted to write books”, he says, and off the back of an editing post at the London Review of Books he’s managed four quite distinctive, critically-lauded novels; Whoops!, a myth-busting account of why things went so disastrously wrong in the economic collapse of 2008; and the memoir, which delicately unpicks a whopping family secret. In yet another career as a journalist he’s written about gaming and technology, and he’s interested in how the net is making us all more porous and multifaceted. The variety of his writing seems in tune with this, and though he thinks it’s not something you can plan for, some of it has cross-fertilised: his debut fiction, The Debt to Pleasure, about a murdering gourmand, was cooked up out of his work as a restaurant critic, while Whoops! came out of the financial research he conducted for his latest novel.
Capital, one of a recent clutch of books about the demographic changes to London that have so transfigured and enlivened the city over the past decade, has a cast of Zimbabweans, Senegalese, Pakistanis, Hungarians and Poles, as well as the odd native Londoner. Less usually, Lanchester’s novel registers how growing inequality warps relations, segregating rich and poor and making people blind to the lives of others.
Much of this unseeing, of course, is one-sided. If, like Lanchester’s characters, you’re a nanny, a shop assistant, a builder or a parking attendant you have a pretty good idea of how the other half lives: it’s the rich who are heedless. This is something Lanchester first registered as a student in the early Eighties: “The thing about Oxford that radicalised me was I was quite shocked by the extent that I saw proper, oblivious privilege at close hand. These were people my age who wanted to smash the state, smash the miners, smash the unions, sell off the NHS.”
It was a much more politicised era, he thinks, with the miners’ strike, the riots and “punk, which was against the idea that your self-definition should come through labels, and was deliberately distressed and ugly and messy”. He still feels a measure of punk’s abrasive disgust at “the degree to which we’re now invited to invest our feeling in owning bits of stuff by Louis Vuitton.” But Thatcher’s counter-revolution meant that everyone started to understand themselves in this way: now consumerism, Lanchester says, is “a central preoccupation of the culture”. In Capital although it’s the banker’s family who have the greatest difficulty coping with change – unable to grasp that their well-padded lives are threatened, that thirty quid cab rides and round-the-clock nannying are a thing of the past – it’s striking that everyone in the novel is oblivious to the impending economic crash.
In his memoir Lanchester notes that what people don’t know is often what they choose not to know. Perhaps we’ve lived through an era of collective unknowing, succumbing, he says, to “a whole variety of different techniques that try to normalise these things, as if that’s just the way the economy works. But this is not the reality principle, it’s a distorted capture of the system, and it seems to me we’re being sold a pup. There are other versions of capitalism, including the one we had ourselves, until ten minutes ago, that function fine.” When I ask him about the problem inherent in our current version, of making a system as fantastically complex as today’s globalised markets democratically accountable, he scoffs: “The analogy would be that cars have got so powerful and so fast that we need to get rid of the rules of the road.” The problem is one of economic illiteracy: “de-skilling among the public is so fundamental that people no longer feel entitled to have views about the banks.”
What’s his hunch about the direction Britain will take? “Our economy will be flat probably for two decades with not much growth and a decreasing importance on the global stage. But that doesn’t mean we have decreasing importance in our own lives.” The model for us might be Japan: “What you see there is a great variety of different forms of self-expression and people deciding what they’re interested in, making up their own versions of themselves. It’s a much more diverse, creative place.” This idea of everyone making it up as they go along, finding their own connections and constructing their own meaning is something that’s echoed in Capital. The experiences of people on Lanchester’s London street are widely different (from banquets and performance art to detention and torture) but they are all given equal billing and presented on the same plane: “It’s up to the reader to decide what’s shocking and what’s not, who they like and who they don’t, and what the tensions in it are.” There’s a democratic impulse here and an understanding that the grand narratives which made sense of life for us have irrevocably broken down. Now, he says, “we just have a tremendous cacophony”.
A version of this article appeared as ‘Life in a lower-case capital’ in the Camden New Journal, Islington Tribune and West End Extra on 5.4.2012.