John Lanchester
Faber & Faber, 592pp, £17.99

John Lanchester's new novel has the daunting dimensions, totalising ambition and democratic cast list of a 19th-century novel in modern-daydress. The setting is Pepys Road, a street in south London where the house prices have gone consistently up over the years, so that by 2008 a long-time resident such as Petunia Howe counts among her neighbours the 40-year-old banker Roger Yount and the 17-year-old footballer Freddy Kamo, as well as the Kamal family, who run the local shop. The Polish builder Zbigniew travels to Pepys Road for work, as does the Zimbabwean traffic warden Quentina, who lives in Tooting, in a hostel run for failed asylum-seekers.

Lanchester is fluent in the relevant codes at every level of society and on every rung of the property ladder, but vignettes don't add up to a vision. What's missing is a central device - a scam or legal case. There is a subplot of sorts - a harassment campaign aimed at the inhabitants of Pepys Road - but it has no propulsive force.

The novel unfolds over 107 short chapters, an attempt at pace that has the effect of killing momentum. A bulky novel with a strong backbone such as Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities can afford to take this approach because its chapters are separate but not discrete, the narrative method being akin to a Mexican wave or jigsaw or game of dominoes. The storylines here overlap in only the smallest ways and derive little from each other in terms of interest. What we know about Roger or his circumstances is affected only by the chapters, very few in all, about his wife, Arabella. The developments in his story are almost entirely confined to his chapters.

But if Capital is less a network or tentacle novel than a soap opera, then it's one with the operatics turned right down. Dialogue usually occurs late in a chapter, after a great deal of synopsised back story and dumped fact. A group of characters linked by geography can thrive without a plot, just as a group of linked characters can thrive without shared geography. Dramatic interest doesn't have to be maintained at both the structural and local levels but it shouldn't be offered at neither.

Lanchester isn't the first author of a multi-character London novel to do away with craftsmanship, surrender to the monster's looseness and bagginess and entrust everything to voice. Martin Amis wasn't the first to do it either but he's certainly the relevant precedent here. Like Amis, Lanchester rummages and loafs about, occasionally lingering on a phrase ("Could do"; "It's not you, it's me") or phenomenon (the pagan mayhem of Christmas shopping, the use of spectacles as "a form of defence mechanism or camouflage"). Rhetorical questions receive an answer and not the one invited. There are moments of adjustment or self-correction: "Sex wasn't the problem. Or rather, sex was the problem, because it was so great." High and low live cheek by jowl: "Freddy was wearing a tracksuit, Mickey a three-piece suit."

Lanchester has a taste for that moment of Amisian bathos, the expectation fulfilled, the punchline pancake-flat: "It wasn't that Davina was overtly clingy. But she was completely, irrevocably dependent. He was her world; he knew that because she told him so. 'You are my world.'" Even when the effect comes off, it feels second-hand. Lanchester's failures as a phrasemaker ("apocalyptically expensive") are in the Amis mould - and so are his successes ("bag-and-coat noises", an "aeroplane-best" suit).

Lanchester's voice is a constant presence but not always consistent in its strategies. The death of Petunia's husband happened five years "before", while the death of the Kamals' father happened five years "ago". The leap forward in time with every section requires the reader to pick up what's happened in the interim, except in the case of juicy or confrontational moments, which are given a flashback. In the absence, at least for the first 200 pages, of dramatic incident, character is revealed analytically, through a straight-talking mixture of invasive omniscience and interior monologue. Yet there is an outrageous violation of this intimacy, the needs of narrative trumping those of plausibility, when Smitty, Petunia's Banksy-like grandson, deduces the culprit of the Pepys Road harassment campaign but sedulously refers to him (in his own head) as "this person", for the benefit of a reader he doesn't know exists.

Capital grows more solid as it progresses but a certain complacency stays the course. On page 20, just after we have read that he attended Harrow and wants his million-pound bonus as "a proof of his masculine worth", Roger Yount ponders a recent purchase: "Considering the Hirst from aesthetic, art-historical, interior-design, and psychological points of view, Roger's considered judgement about the painting was that it had cost £47,000, plus VAT." Eighty-five chapters and 450 pages later, we are introduced to Peter McAllister, an immigration lawyer who gives the initial impression of being "a privileged man passing into early middle age with his assumptions and prejudices entirely intact". And so it turns out:

That impression was accurate: that was exactly who Peter McAllister was. He had been to Radley and St Andrews, had been a pupil under an old friend of his father's . . . The people who worked with immigrants always ran the risk of coming to believe that they worked for the immigrants. That was a mistake Peter never made.

This is righteous but hardly excoriating, tickled rather than raging, and concertedly shallow. As a portrait of metropolitan decadence, the novel is all surfaces and stereotypes, all symptoms. The damning truth we yearn to hear has yet to be delivered.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The last Tsar