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Two Crisis Novels: 'A Week in December' and 'Capital'

It is instructive to read Sebastian Faulks’ A Week in December (2009) and John Lanchester’s Capital (2012) one after the other. They are remarkably alike in some respects. Both are set in London, and cover overlapping periods – a week (16-22 December 2007) in Faulks’ novel and three separate months (December 2007, April 2008, August 2008) in Lanchester’s – at the onset of the 2007-8 financial crisis. In both different sets of characters (families, professional and social circles) are generally connected circumstantially to each other and often not connected at all, and characters are presented on the whole as isolated souls. Irrespective of circumstantial or not even circumstantial connections, quite a few key protagonists appear with similar identifications in both: both feature financial sector operatives (I’ll inaccurately but economically call them “bankers” here), suspect Muslims, footballers hired by clubs from overseas, affluent housewives, solvent artists. These could be thought of as representative London residents; but, of course, each features other and putatively equally representative Londoners which do not resemble those in the other. The imaginary space of London is overarching common ground in each, holding each together and giving coherence to their respective narratives. In fact, the imaginary city-features cohere in both through resonances with seemingly familiar everyday experiences in London and preconceived expectations of London, the “real” London (which raises the interesting question of how well these novels gel for readers who are unacquainted with and unaware of London; whether these narratives work without presuming complicity with readers’ existing knowledge of London, however second-hand that knowledge might be).

Perhaps most importantly, both foreground the Author to similar effect. This is particularly interesting. I don’t just mean to point to the obvious: that both are given in the voice of an omniscient Author, who flits effortlessly through the minds and doings of protagonists, and juxtaposes scenes through an intractable Authorial rationale rather than through tractable plot connections. Considered together, the pre-eminence of the Author in these novels has a particular and unusual character. Both the similarities and the differences between these novels underscore the centrality of the Author.

Let me pause awhile on characters and Authorial choices. Given the overarching frame of the imaginary space of London, wherein characters appear as representative residents, and given that the connections between characters are circumstantial or non-existent, the choice of characters is apt to appear indicative of an Authorial viewpoint. The choices made in presenting London in terms of some characters rather than possible others seem to characterise the Author. There is no explanation for these choices other than the Author’s predisposition, though that fact might be cloaked by their omniscient invisibility. If a reader reads only one of these novels that cloak of omniscient invisibility may seem impervious; read together though, the similarities and differences in choices of characters allow readers a bit of comparative x-ray vision. So here’s how the matter stands insofar as characters are similarly identified in the two novels. The main banker protagonist in A Week, John Veals, is a ruthless, personally asocial and in a larger way antisocial, and therefore thoroughly successful money-making machine; the main banker protagonist in Capital, Roger Yount, is an old-school duffer, accustomed to staying afloat on systems of privilege, who finds himself out of synch with an increasingly ruthless and corrupt financial system and eventually out of his job. The main youthful Muslim protagonist in A Week, Hassan, is a would-be terrorist joining a plot to blow up a hospital; the counterpart in Capital, Shahid, is not a terrorist, but innocently falls into a web of security profiling and communal connections to be arrested as a terrorist suspect. The promising footballer in A Week is a Polish import, ‘Spike’ Borowski, who makes good; the promising footballer, Freddie Kano, in Capital is a Senegalese import whose career ends prematurely with a bone-crunching tackle. The rich housewife of A Week, Vanessa Veals, is a thoughtful, conscientious and stoically lonely person in a loveless marriage; the counterpart in Capital, Arabella Yount, is a temperamental and sociable person, married to a generally affectionate partner, who nevertheless feels hard done by. So, in a way, the similarly identified characters in the two novels are portrayed with opposed characteristics. Is there Authorial ideology to be discerned in these choices?

The more varied cast of characters in the two novels come with their own kind of indicativeness of Authorial vision. The ethnic others of London are naturally a not insignificant point of interest for readers informed of the city’s demographics: by the 2011 census 44.9% white British, 37% born outside the UK, including 24.5% born outside Europe.  Insofar as ethnic others go, the London of A Week confines its direct gaze to second generations and their parents – the dangerous second generation and well-assimilated first generation of Muslims, and the underground driver, Jenni Fortune, of (perhaps mixed) Afro-Caribbean descent. In this respect, Capital extends a wider gaze beyond Muslims, and takes in new immigrants in London – especially via a Polish builder, Bogdan Zbigniew, and a Zimbabwean asylum seeker, Quentina Mkfesi. Their circumstances, especially the detention centres and inequities that are any asylum seeker’s lot in the UK, are of significant interest in Capital.  The “question” of the presence of Muslims in London – for this is an Overwhelming Question in these zeitgeisty novels, immediately evoking Islamist fundamentalism/terrorism – is dealt with quite differently in each. In Capital the kind of family affections and friendship allegiances that are familiar to all readers are primarily depicted for Muslim characters, with occasional cross-cultural desires and slippages noted, and with the fringes of religious community fraying into the vague dodgy doings of possible extremists. In A Week it is mainly dysfunction between first and second generations of Muslims which is in view, with the terrorist inclinations of the second generation centre-stage. Much of the view of Islam here is presented not via direct portrayal of Muslim characters, but from the extrinsic perspective of an erudite and unassuming lawyer, Gabriel Northwood. Gabriel’s erudition is confirmed by the admiration of the two women (one is Jenni) he associates with; both are, as they say, unabashedly impressed by how much Gabriel knows and wonder how he happens to know so much. Gabriel, on the pretext of a judicial case involving Muslim cultural sensibilities (which doesn’t actually figure in the novel), pronounces on the Overwhelming Question at various points: he discovers that the Quran recommends violence towards non-believers on “almost every page”, makes some contrastive inferences about Islamic and Western culture by comparing 13th century rural Iran (clearly not a specialist area for him) with contemporary London, and has a moment of illumination when he finds that Islamic beliefs are very like those of his mad delusional brother’s (permanent inmate of an asylum). One liberal Muslim character, Shahla (Hassan’s friend), seems to concur with Gabriel’s reading and speaks of the nazism in Islam; another, Farooq al-Rashid (Hassan’s father, who is awarded an OBE), finds his ignorant humaneness confirmed at one point by being able to appreciate Matthew Arnold’s poetry. [I am reminded that Matthew Arnold’s liberal humanist credentials and poetic sensibility as a civilising force on troublesome others was evoked similarly in another novel: in Saturday, 2005, Ian McEwan used Arnold’s verse to momentarily quell the thuggish lower-class Baxter by its high-minded beauty.] Is there Authorial ideology to be discerned in these choices?

However, Authorial choices apropos characters are a relatively shallow matter. The pre-eminence of the Author in these two novels has a deeper cast: it has to do with the form of the novel. The structure of these novels – the thoughts and experiences of circumstantially linked or not linked characters within the overarching frame of a city – recalls modernist novels like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). It is the difference from these which is pertinent here. The authorial voices in both these (and other such) modernist novels follow specific stylistic principles: at times their narrators become opaque (draw attention to themselves) in their deliberately aestheticized verbosity; at times they become flickeringly lucid in seemingly presenting the unmediated flow of characters’ thoughts (the stream-of-consciousness / interior-monologue technique). Paradoxically, by drawing attention to their distinctive narrative stylistics these modernist authors also remove themselves from their characters, hold themselves apart and tendentiously erase their authorial presence. Their omniscience as authors is troubled in the process. The omniscience of the Authors is untroubled and un-self-reflexive in the stylistics of both A Week and Capital. The transparent clarity of the Authorial voice stretches evenly across both novels; so evenly dispersed that all the characters’ thoughts and experiences are sieved through its stylistic neutrality. In that transparency of style, also paradoxically, the pre-eminence of the Author is underscored: this narrative style with that novel structure suggest that there is nothing but the Author to hold things together, the Author is cast over and bears upon all – hence, the Author (capitalised).

I have put that point impressionistically, and won’t explore it further here. The other kind of modernist form these novels might recall – and this is what makes them “crisis novels” – is that of the novel-of-ideas, such as Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow (1921) or, more significantly, Brave New World (1931). A Week and Capital may be regarded as “crisis novels” in that something explanatory about the financial crisis of 2007-8 might be anticipated in them; they seem designed to offer insight into the crisis by presenting bankers and the workings of financial institutions at the time. They may be expected, in brief, to explain something of the conundrum of the crisis for the thinking reader. In fact, neither actually subscribes to the form of the novel-of-ideas. Lanchester does enough to present an informed shadow of the crisis in the backdrop of Capital – it is there in the description of property prices in Pepys Road, in the account of corruption in and eventual fall of Roger’s firm – but does not actually go into explanation or discussion of the crisis. Those following Lanchester’s work would be aware that the research he did to that end featured separately, in a non-fiction account of the crisis, targeted to the ordinary reader: Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (2010) – in the introduction to which he says, “I begun working on the subject [the economic crisis] as part of the background to a novel, and soon realized that I had stumbled across the most interesting story I’ve ever found”. He kept that explanatory story out of Capital and told it separately, thus separating the narrative discussion of ideas from the novelistic narrative. Like Lanchester, it is evident throughout Faulks’ A Week that he had researched the matter equally seriously; unlike Lanchester, he evidently decided to present his explanation of the financial crisis through the novel. That makes this some kind of novel-of-ideas: at any rate, large chunks of A Week are devoted to somewhat obtrusive explanations of financial terms (at one point Veals explains some fairly elementary terms to one of his high-flying minions) and ruminations on the psychology of the financial speculator and on legalised corruption in the financial sector. This isn’t the kind of novel-of-ideas that Huxley was interested in. That involved drawing readers into conceptual ambivalences and irresolution. A Week is a novel-of-ideas as vehicle for the Author’s well-resolved ideas, the Author’s consistent understanding distributed across a number of conversations and passages. Insofar as explaining the financial crisis goes, the Author shines through in both Lanchester’s and Faulks’s writings: for Lanchester the Author divides into two complementary voices, one voicing the fictional Capital and the other the non-fictional Whoops!; for Faulks, the Author’s voice exercises its commanding and unifying Author-ity in A Week. The “London” where these novels are set might as well be called “Author-land”.

Suman Gupta, June 2015