The Prologue starts with a mystery, who is this man and what’s he doing?
At first light on a late summer morning, a man in a hooded sweatshirt moved softly and slowly along an ordinary looking street in South London…Pepys Road.’ He posts cards through people’s door: I WANT WHAT YOU HAVE.
Here’s the message Lanchester is trying to get across (without being didactic) houses by late 2007 were no longer just a place where people lived, but an investment opportunity, a barometer of wealth and indeed of Britain’s collective well-being.
This happened at first slowly, gradually, as average house prices crept up through the lower hundred thousands and then… in high hundred thousands, and now they were in seven figures. It began to be all right for people to talk about house prices all the time.
I WANT WHAT YOU HAVE. This is an old-fashioned morality tale told by an old-fashioned omniscient narrator, not only does the reader get inside setting, the different houses that make up Pepys Road, the Yount family’s luxurious three-million- pound family home to the linoleum of the oldest resident in the street, Petunia, but we get inside their thoughts too. Petunia’s daughter, Mary is well-off enough to live in a house worth three- quarters of a million, but it’s her mum the clichéd ‘no spring chicken’, who did nothing more than stay put whose wealth outstripped her daughter and most other people in Britain. One of the kind of in-jokes of the book was that making such houses bigger by adding a basement effectively cost nothing because by the time the builders had finished burrowing and emerged into the light house prices had risen so high that it had cost nothing and effectively paid for itself. Everybody likes to get something for nothing.
Roger Yount works in the City for Pinker Lloyd in the currency exchange market. Bears and Bulls and all that. Lanchester the author of How To Speak Money a dictionary that decodes City obfuscation and financial weapons of mass destruction is in familiar territory here, and we know from the biography of his mother and father who was also a banker, that who you know can be more important than what you know. Roger Yount doesn’t really need to know all that much about computers and spreadsheets because those serving under him have Phds and the skill-sets of Mississippi steam-boat gamblers that never lose. Roger has the right public school accent and has lucked in with his ability wear a dinner suit and know where the silver spoon goes and to look the part, leader of a team that is on their way to achieving a £100 million profit for the company. Timing is everything and the book is set just before the financial crash of 2008.
Big City Bonuses separate the boys from the men and Roger is thinking ahead of the million pound extra that will bring to his annual salary because he needs it. Mr Micawaber’s dictum – “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” – in this world can seem utterly Dickensian, especially when other traders such as Eric the Barbarian are making hundreds of millions of pounds for themselves. I WANT WHAT YOU HAVE.
Arabella Yount, Roger’s, wife’s religion is the conspicuous consumption marked by the passage of nannies to help with childcare, makeovers and treats because that is who she is. ‘No Plan B’ as Roger realises at the end of almost 600 page journey. In a morality tale the reader knows that she is no good and she’ll come to no good. In a way she seems so ridiculous, unable to change her three-year-old child’s nappy, for example, she seems one-dimensional. Roger, in comparison, seems two-dimensional on the page, a collection of stereotypes rather than a character.
But perhaps the reason for this lies with the reader, rather than the writer. This is what people like Arabella Yount are like in real life.
There’s a Shallow Grave moment when the builder, Zbigniew, whom Arabella calls Bogadon the builder (think of a Polish Bob the builder) because it’s easier to remember, finds £500 000 cash, a suitcase full of ten-pound notes, behind a false wall in Petunia’s house which he is renovating, for her daughter Mary to sell for windfall profit after her mother’s death. Nobody knows about the suitcase or is looking for the money. The dilemma whether to keep it (a yep vote from me) or give it back is decided by the Yount’s Hungarian nanny, Matya, whom Zbigniew has fallen in love with, (as has Roger). It’s the most amount of money Matya has ever seen or is likely to see, but walking up any street in London and most people will be able to see similar amounts in the bricks and mortar of a one-bedroom flat, perhaps even in a parking space. Doing the right thing is the right thing because he finds out the notes were old and worthless. But such is Lanchester’s knowledge of finance that Mary and her husband have another dilemma because old notes have to be honoured by the Bank of England, but they will ask some hard questions of where the money came from and why they should pay out.
There’s lessons of other sorts for the other main characters. No good deed goes unpunished. The Kamal family that live above their shop on Pepy’s road are Muslims. When one of the brothers Shahid, who lives somewhere cheaper in London, is tricked into giving an acquaintance Qbal a couch to sleep on and an internet connection to play with it seems inevitable that he’ll turn out to be a terrorist. Similarly, Petunia’s grandson Smitty, a kind of Banksy figure, in the media-related London art scene is outed and with it his stock plummets, but it allows him to tell who is behind the I WANT WHAT YOU HAVE campaign. The most hated figure in Pepys Road, the traffic warden Quentina Mfkesi from Rhodesia is working under false pretenses and under an assumed name. She is an asylum seeker, holed up, waiting for her life to begin , but now liable to be deported back to a country where the authorities have promised to rape her to death. Nobody seems to care. Freddy Kanu, one of the other residents of the street who signed a professional contract with a prominent London club (Spurs or Arsenal) faces a different journey, and a payoff for ‘not being able to do the thing he loves’ which is to play football. But it’s a happy ending of sorts. In morality tales there’s always hope that the good will prosper and the bad will be punished. Capital is fiction. In your dreams.