John Lanchester: “Expectations”

01/10/2012 § 1 Comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, January 9, 2012.

Oh, that’s clever: make me reverse my expectations of the upper class by writing docilely, rationally, from their perspective, in a story in which a wealthy man’s expectations — no, needs — for a million pound bonus from his financial company (just before the crash, 2007) are crushed. I’m not entirely empathetic — I’m not sure I could ever feel entirely sorry for “rich people problems” (any more than SNL recently showed for the Chapelle-like spoof “White Person Problems”) — but then again, neither is the author, who at times seems both satiric and sincere. At the least, I’ve got a better perspective on the origins of entitlement now, thanks to Roger Yount of 51 Pepys Road, and his wife, Arabella (who is a bit shortchanged in this excerpt from Lanchester’s forthcoming, multi-character Capital, but still acquits herself well), who offer loads of quotable sections with only one odious reliance on the cliche of frugally employing foreign “help” because of the way they “worked twice as hard as a British worker, was twice as reliable, and cost half as much.”

First on the list of successes is Lanchester’s ability to paint both the culture around Roger, and Roger’s place in that world, simultaneously. Some authors get hung up on character — they need them to stand and pose in front of a mirror, distinct from the action — but in “Expectations,” Roger is constantly defined by his place in the world, which fits with his own light obsession with being seen as doing well, even if he lacks personal ambition: “he mainly wanted life to not make too many demands of him.” Roger fits the Old City/New City dynamic, with both the breezy high-society and Named College connections of old London, but also the fast-paced skill to fit in with the “supposedly meritocratic” dot.com world, in which age and class aren’t nearly as important as your ability to deliver vast sums of money to your employer. Glimpses of Roger at work, in his glass-walled, blinds-up office, watching three screens at once, clarify his semi-lax attitude, both from his monitoring of foreign currency (and appreciation of the volatility there) and in the entries he posts to his diary. (How much does he see, though, considering that his wife accurately describes him as oblivious to everything at home?) There’s even some sound business advice: “Being cut off from your department was a risk, and the more you knew about what was going on among your underlings the less chance you had of getting unpleasant surprises.”

Lanchester doesn’t think only at a macro level, though; he fills his text with the rituals from the micro side of this upper echelon, as well as the expenses. By the end of the first section, we know exactly where Roger’s money has gone, and how he feels about it: “Any flights would be taken business class, since Roger thought that the whole point of having money, if it had to be summed up in a single point, which it couldn’t, but if you had to, the whole point of having a bit of money was not to have to fly scum class.” We believe, between the Bang & Olufsen system that streams audio through any room in the house to the BMW M3 (“for the shops”) and Mercedes S400 (“the principle family car”), that Roger faces “a genuine risk of going broke” (that is, having to liquidate some of his assets — see the aforementioned “Rich Person Problems”). The only line that sticks out — for better and worse — is the way Roger frets about the cost of artwork: “Looking at it from aesthetic, art-historical, interior-design, and psychological points of view . . . it cost forty-seven thousand pounds, plus V.A.T.” I guess price is only a factor to Roger when he can’t immediately attach a utility to it. As for the rituals, this is my favorite exchange in the piece:

“Max,” Roger said. “Petra well? Toby and Isabella?”

“All good,” Max said. “Arabella? Conrad? And then there was a half-a-beat or a quarter-of-a-beat pause while he stretched for the name; which meant that Roger had won this exchange. “Joshua?”

These are people who could care less for one another — Max is the head of the Compensation Committee — and yet they judge themselves socially by how readily they can recall facts about one another. This meshes well, too, with the way Roger makes a “huge deal of his washing and grooming,” all the way down to wearing “special lucky silk underpants,” as a means of feeling “fortified, defended, ready for trouble”: i.e., I am better than you, at least in terms of appearance, and so I can handle whatever you throw at me.

Finally, Lanchester also nails the pace, aided — I believe — by his comic sensibilities. (“Yessssss! This wasn’t million-quid talk. This was two million, maybe more. Could he be heading for two and a half? He and Arabella might even have sex!”) When we’re introduced to Arabella, Roger’s wife, she’s described as someone who multitasks, not because she can, but because she “had once read a book about how women were better than men” at doing so. As for the multitasking itself: “two of those [four] tasks Arabella had subcontracted to other people.” This sort of puts Arabella’s fixation on her husband’s inadequacies in perspective: she’s no more “raising” the boys and than he is, between their two nannies and a twice-weekly maid. And yet, Lanchester moves as such a clip, and with such a close third-person focus on Arabella, that we totally agree with her decision to just vanish over Christmas Eve, and to let her husband see what it’s like to suffer at home. We might even understand her views on luxury, in which she recognizes that these objects are unnecessary and overpriced, and yet, are “so nice, so lovely . . . that you did not mind…. She loved expensive things because she knew what their expensiveness meant. She had a complete understanding of the signifiers.” This is Lanchester’s most difficult task, and yet he largely pulls it off (this being an excerpt, some things are unresolved): helping us to understand the signifiers for a class in which 99% of us will have no love or true understanding. I give him and the story a bitter round of applause for this.

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