Middlebrow culture overlaps with pop, and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between them. Both products are workmanlike, intelligently crafted, and can delight a broad audience by charm and sheer momentum. Middlebrow doesn’t pretend to be high art. It’s very good pop culture. Perhaps pop is a little kitschier.
I’m sure someone knows the difference.
As a reader and blogger, I have dabbled in middlebrow and pop. I used to be a freelance writer of frivolous articles about diary-writing, where to get the best ice cream, and bicycling fashions (i.e., Sir Chris Hoy and sideburns). I am a reader who admits to preferring Booth Tarkington’s The Flirt to Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. I love science fiction movies, and why didn’t James Franco win an Oscar for Rise of the Planet of the Apes?
There’s nothing like sinking into a bubble bath in the middle of a drought to consider these questions.
There I was in the tub with John Lanchester’s new novel Capital, positive it would distract me from the heat. The reviewers loved Capital. I was very excited about it, hoping it would fall somewhere between Margaret Drabble’s The Realm of Gold and Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency. (Well, Drabble and Hensher are above the middle, not middlebrow at all, but they’re accessible to the middle…so does that count?) You won’t be surprised that I was very disappointed when Capital failed to meet my middlebrow criteria. It’s an ambitious, heavily promoted, uneven, drably-written 600-page novel about money, ethnicity, and anonymity. I read 300 of them.
Some reviewer made a big mistake when he or she compared John Lanchester’s new novel, Capital, to Trollope’s The Way We live Now–and can I possibly write a note to this reviewer and get a refund? (If I had a dollar for every damned book I’ve wasted time on after reading a review…)
Trollope’s The Way We Live Now is an absorbing classic about finance and dishonesty, with a big ensemble cast, and though Lanchester’s lacklustre Capital is also in part about finance, with a big ensemble cast, the writing is nowhere near the level of Trollope’s.
I was initially fascinated. Lanchester’s characters are strangers to each other but live in a gentrified neighborhood in London, Pepys Street, where the houses are now worth millions. The novel begins very well: an anonymous young man photographs the houses on Pepys Street: later the residents receive anonymous postcards with a photo of their house and the caption. “We Want What You Have.”
This mystifies and disconcerts them, and eventually they complain to the police. But it is the characters that interest us, among them Roger, an investment banker who no longer understands the math of the trading floor, and his shallow wife, Arabella, who devotes herself to spending huge amounts of money; Petunia, a very sweet, ordinary old woman who has had a dismal life and now develops a brain tumor, and whose daughter Mary, is terrified by her illness; Smitty, Mary’s son, a conceptual artist who specializes in anonymity–his art installations just appear and no one knows who Smitty is–and is fascinated by the anonymous postcards; the Kamals from Pakistan, who live above the family shop on Pepys Street; Freddy, a professional soccer player whose father has accompanied him from Africa; and Quentina, an illegal immigrant from Zimbabwe who cannot be deported because of the political situation, and who works illegally as a meter warden (meter maid), where Pepys Street is very profitable.
Some of the characters are fascinating, some are sketchy. Take Arabella, Roger’s once trophy wife. She is so shallow and vain that I don’t quite believe in her, though I know this type exists: it’s something about Lanchester’s writing that makes her a flat paper doll. Even Roger has some redeeming features, and when Arabella leaves him alone for Christmas weekend without any nanny to teach him a lesson about child care, it is just so awful. Shit squirting out all over the place…toys broken…when Roger gets an emergency nanny, we are only too pleased. Worse, we think Arabella’s odious, and that she has no real complaint, since a nanny usually takes care of the children. She is so empty we don’t believe in her. She’s either overspending or drunk or hungover. (Yet I know there are people like this: it all comes down to Lanchester’s writing.)
I have a similar attitude toward Zbigniew, a quiet, shrewd builder who is successful in his work because he delivers exactly what the residents want, no more, no less. Everything is controlled, except his need to break up with his confusing girlfriend, Davina. The sex is good, but she’s needy: so needy she won’t let go even when he does break up with her. Poor, poor Davina. I should have cared, but again we’re madly on the side of Zbigniew (even though his best friend, who says he uses women, is not)
Anyway, as the financial situation gets out of hand in 2008, most of the characters fall down a couple of class rungs. I skipped to the last chapter to make sure that yes indeed, Roger and his family were downwardly mobile…and others were certainly on their way.
The odd thing is that Lanchester’s potentially sizzling page-turner doesn’t remind me of Trollope at all. Rather, it’s like a less stylish version of Sebastian Faulks’ A Week in December. In A Week in December, set the week before Christmas in 2007, an ensemble cast of characters must work up until the holiday, and we learn their attitudes toward work:
Jenni Fortune is an underground driver who witnesses someone attempt suicide by jumping on the tracks; Then the surviving jumper tries to sue the railroad. Veals is a paranoid financier who prefers to make his trades on an orange phone in an alley. Tranter is a nasty book reviewer who loves to eviscerate books.
Faulks is in control of this fast-paced, well-written novel; there are so many characters, so much detail. It’s detail that Lanchester seems to lack in Capital. Characters are barely fleshed-out.
I know there are many who loved Capital, but I think it’s second-rate: up to some people’s standards, but nowhere near my middlebrow good-enough kind of book.