We pit the newly released Capital against Martin Amis’ legendary title London Fields to discover which one should make our must-read of the week
John Paul Nicholas, Deputy Production Editor, argues that Capital by John Lanchester is the essential London read (£17.99, Faber and Faber)
Capital begins with the inhabitants of Pepys Road receiving photos of their front doors inscribed with the words ‘We Want What You Have’. It seemed like the precursor to a corny crime thriller, but it turned out not to be so simple. Set in 2008, Capital can be seen as the fiction counterpart to Lanchester’s Whoops!, an analysis of the financial crash. The story of London is the story of money; hence Capital.
Lanchester’s Londoners are so recognisable they are anonymous. We have Arabella, the pampered lady-at-lunch; Zbiegniew, the hardworking, polite Polish builder; Quentina, the African traffic warden. At first their voices seem muted and characterless, but therein lies Lanchester’s genius: their third-person, approximated voices are not the point. These characters becoming interesting because they are unwilling subjects of the crash.
In the democratic disregard of its subjects, Lanchester’s capital is blind to who it graces and who it destroys.
‘We Want What You Have’ could serve as the unspoken credo of pre-2008 capitalism – the humming background lift music as the cables were cut – a similar phrase to ‘Too Big To Fail’. In the democratic disregard of its subjects, Lanchester’s capital is blind to who it graces and who it destroys. The talented banker and footballer are equally at its whim. Even the characters who seem to show the promise of intelligence are treated to the same narratorial bodybagging.
The feint of the crime-novel set-up gives way to the suckerpunch truth: in the capital, the individual is expendable, and this is the dark truth which makes Capital the best state-of-London novel.
Collette Lyons, Features Editor, fights the corner for London Fields by Martin Amis (£8.99, Vintage)
Described by historian Simon Schama as ‘one of the all-time great London novels’, Amis’ London Fields (1989) is not only a murder story and a tale of love but an unflaggingly energetic and grubby portrait of our capital city. You couldn’t exactly call it a love letter to London – more like a poison pen letter – but London Fields portrays a city of dodgy pubs, ever-looming violence, civic decay and familiar rubbish weather.
It is a novel about the ways in which urban lives collide – bringing together an unforgettable cast of grotesques, including the darts-playing, pornaddicted professional ‘cheat’ Keith Talent; the wealthy, innocent Guy Clinch (a hapless victim of the repeated assaults by his nightmarish infant Marmaduke); and the self-destructive femme fatale Nicola Six.
When future generations look back on London at the turn of the millennium it will be Amis’ city they’ll see...
It’s an open question whether Amis’ portrayal of Keith and Nicola subverts stereotypes or merely panders to hem, but there’s no denying the savage bite of Amis’ wit, his ear for dialogue or his ability to both grip and unsettle the reader. This is one of those novels where you can’t get the characters out of your head – much as you might wish to.
Just as we now picture Dickens’ London in the 19th century, when future generations look back on London at the turn of the millennium it will be Amis’ city they’ll see: it is a vision of the city: apocalyptic, madly exaggerated – and instantly recognisable. However, while I enjoyed the madness I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to the first-time Amis reader – in fact I’d definitely tell you to read the far superior (and wittier) Dead Babies.
The verdict: which one should you read?
While Amis' London Fields hasn't lost any of its potency in the last 23 years, it's a divisive read. Amis' irredeemably bleak view of the world and its inhabitants can prove grating at times and is prone to pantomime. Capital, however, is a state-of-the-nation novel which is equally bleak yet has relevance. Despite what politicians tell us, we are clearly not a 'big society' or 'all in this together' and this is the only novel brave enough to reflect financial-crash London as the increasingly polarised society it is.