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In ‘Capital,’ remembering what we really have

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Kai Ryssdal: Another day, another bailout in the eurozone — courtesy this time of Cyprus. It’s the fifth country to ask for help, if you’re keeping track. All the euro drama is unsettling the U.K. London’s FTSE stock index was down today. Manufacturing is down, its economy is shrinking. They’re in the middle of their second recession since the 2008 financial crisis.

That crisis is the backdrop for John Lanchester’s new novel, “Capital,” about the residents of one upwardly-mobile block in London and their financial fates. Mr. Lanchester, welcome to the program.

John Lanchester: Thank you, Kai.

Ryssdal: The London property bubble is in a way at the heart of this book and what happens on the main street there that you have set it on, Pepys Road in London, and the neighbors and the environment that they have there. And what happened is that these people became — as their properties gained in value — very well off.

Lanchester: When you get these sort of global bubbles there is a collective madness. And it reached very deep here. People treated their houses basically as if they were gigantic ATM machines, which only dispensed cash. But I wanted to catch that moment of obliviousness because there’s something very interesting about obliviousness and people not knowing what’s about to happen.

Ryssdal: And well, it was collective obliviousness and it was willful obliviousness.

Lanchester: Willful and willed. At the peak of the boom, I don’t know, three times a week the phone would ring — an unsolicited call offering credit. The thing about credit is actually it’s something in the old days people used to call debt. Debt used to be a bad thing, they renamed it credit and now we all want more. And I think that it is a thing that is caused by large institutions that have lost their compass and lost their sense of what responsible lending is.

Ryssdal: One of the other themes that runs through this book — and I’ll try to do this without giving too much away — but there’s an element of, “We want what you have.” Somebody shows up at these houses on Pepys Road and sends them postcards literally saying, “We want what you have.” And of course, the thing that came to my mind was the debate that’s happening in this country over Occupy Wall Street and tax the rich and the 1 percent and the 99 percent.

Lanchester: I think that a lot of our society is based on this basic motive of wanting things that we see where we spend a lot of our day being encouraged to want stuff. That’s a theme in the book, that thing about people looking at things and wanting the thing that is just very slightly out of their reach.

Ryssdal: Well, and it’s reflected in the title as well, “Capital.” I mean, obviously it’s the city of London, the capital of England, but it’s obviously the notion of capital and finance and how important it is — not just in your characters’ lives, but in the lives that we all lead.

Lanchester: For sure. If you’re struggling to pay the bills, you’re not very interested in the abstract sense in which we have collectively lost our moral compass about capital. But we’ve traveled a long way down this particular road, broadly speaking since the early ’80s. It’s very interesting that the three really big pieces that came out in the ’80s about that moment — the movie “Wall Street,” Michael Lewis’ “Liar’s Poker,” Tom Wofle writing “Bonfire of the Vanities” about “masters of the universe.” That was supposed to be a blistering excoriation and they adopted it as a motto. They all coined phrases, “Greed is good.” That became a slogan for Wall Street. They loved that.

Ryssdal: So what’s the line coming out of this book? What’s your “masters of the universe” or “greed is good?”

Lanchester: I guess that the world is full of people saying that they want what we have. And we in the developed West, we have a lot on our minds, but we also tend to forget that we’re some of the richest and luckiest people who have ever lived. And maybe there are moments where we should pause and remember what it is that we do have.

Ryssdal: The book is called “Capital.” It’s a novel by John Lanchester. Thanks very much for your time.

Lanchester: Thank you very much, Kai.

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