sat 22/06/2024

John Lanchester: The Wall review - dystopia cut adrift | reviews, news & interviews

John Lanchester: The Wall review - dystopia cut adrift

John Lanchester: The Wall review - dystopia cut adrift

A visionary but frustrating novel of post-apocalyptic Britain

Cold futures: John LanchesterBBC

John Lanchester’s fifth novel begins with a kind of coded warning to the reader – and, perhaps, to the author too. Freezing conditions plague life on the defensive wall – or “National Coastal Defence Structure” – that protects a future Britain from incursions by climate-change migrants in small boats. The weather invites fancy metaphorical comparisons. This cold may feel like “slate, or diamond, or the moon”.

Yet those punishing temperatures are really “just a physical fact… Cold is cold is cold.” Likewise, The Wall teases us into a range of tempting, figurative interpretations. It may be a Brexity or Trumpish satire on xenophobia and isolationism; a futuristic exercise in environmental dystopia; or a parable of generational revolt in which the young resent and reject the “olds” who have “irretrievably fucked up the world”. Above all, however, this is a story that must sink or swim according to its own internal logic and momentum. In fiction, no fable or allegory succeeds without a sturdy narrative architecture that holds firm and makes sense on its own, literal terms. For two-thirds of The Wall, Lanchester keeps the house of his story in good shape. Then he smashes it up. 

In the near future, a long-term climatic catastrophe – “the Change” – has driven refugees from the parched or drowned lands of the South towards those few nations that have survived with more limited damage. A much colder Britain (chilled, presumably, by Atlantic current disruptions) huddles behind the 10,000 km. of the Wall. This “long low concrete monster” snakes around every metre of our coastline, guarded by 100,000 young conscripts on two-year deployments, with a vast permanent staff behind them. Supported by armed “Guards” in ships and the military “Flight” in the skies above (shortage of fuel has all but eliminated civil aviation), the lonely and grumbling “Defenders” spend their frozen, weary shifts (two weeks on, two off) patrolling the Wall. They guard against attempts by the “Others” – desperate migrants – to land on shore and breach the barrier. Behind the Wall, British society chugs along in a depressive but orderly, keep-calm-and-carry-on way, run from above by a shadowy “elite”. Hi-tech surveillance chips control every movement and action: “No biometric ID, no life. Not in this country.” Horribly plausible, Lanchester's evocation of a cowed people that gradually grows fond of its own fetters summons the sprit not only of Nineteen Eighty-Four but of Kazuo Ishiguro's well-mannered nightmare in Never Let Me Go.Those aliens who have somehow made it into Fortress Britain become domestic slaves known as “Help”. Many people come to embrace the new drabness and narrowness – it now feels “weird and wrong” that supermarkets once overflowed at every season with exotic imported food – while the authorities encourage “Breeders” to counteract the plummeting birth rate. “We broke the world,” the majority thinks, “and have no right to keep populating it.” 

For his first-person narrator, Lanchester creates a well-meaning Everyman named Kavanagh. He reports on his numbing stints as a Defender on a quiet stretch of West-Country Wall where “one day is every day”. Kavanagh’s humdrum voice allows Lanchester to drip-feed details of the “Change” and its consequences without the problem of “info-dumping” that often afflicts future-worlds SF or other types of dystopian tale. Yet his very ordinariness lowers the pressure of the prose and, for instance, makes to hard to care much about his budding relationship with a female Defender named Hifa. Under the vigilant eye of the Captain – an incomer himself when legal migration existed but now seemingly a “hardcore” scourge of the Others – Kavanagh creeps from tedium and disaffection into a resigned acceptance of his lot. He sees why veterans of the Wall might sign up for more of this routine marked by “the mix of aimless time, structured days and meaningful work”. The endless waiting, the nebulous enemy, the low-level paranoia of these scenes reminded me of two eerie and surreal European classics in which alienated sentinels keep watch for a possibly non-existent foe: Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe and Julien Gracq’s The Opposing Shore. (Buzzati’s great book in turn left its mark on JM Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians.)

Unlike these predecessors, though, The Wall does not push its mood of uncanny expectancy to the bitter end. For a start, the Others do appear to exist. Spooky, edgy anticipation yields to slam-bang action sequences. After helping to fight off one attack, Kavanagh wins a gong from a blond “baby politician” who warns that, after a further environmental calamity, “the Others are coming” in “dangerous numbers”. Then, after Kavanagh and his platoon transfer as a reward to a supposedly quieter Scottish shore, a mass assault sends 16 incomers successfully over the Wall. This well-planned breach exposes the Captain as a fifth-columnist “traitor” who has conspired with the migrant crews: he is one of those depraved renegades “on the side of the Others”. Having let some of the Others through, Kavanagh and his shamed comrades (Hifa included) will suffer the fate imposed on all Defenders who fail in their duty: the archaic punishment of being “put to sea” in an open boat. 

Here, Lanchester consciously breaks his implied contract with the reader. He quits the carefully drawn, claustrophobic terrain of dystopian Britain behind the Wall, never to return. Instead, we crash through the generic gears. In its last act, The Wall lurches into an apocalyptic adventure story – RL Stevenson meets JG Ballard. Kavanagh and his chums navigate the risen seas until they find safe harbour with a floating community of migrants who live off the coast of an abandoned island. Lanchester has fun with daily life and diet (wind-dried seagull, chums?) in this post-catastrophe haven of survivors who embrace the present and insist that “nothing before the sea was real”. Too much fun, perhaps: when a pirate ship arrives to bring this castaway idyll to a bloodily spectacular, indeed Hollywooden, end, the author has drifted far from his original premise. 

Neither does the finale – which involves an abandoned oil rig and its “hermit” guardian – seriously seek to tie up many ends. These marooned people, Lanchester reminds us, no longer inhabit the sort of reason-governed and end-directed story "where something turns out all right”. No neat closure will resolve this open-ended calamity. And even sceptical readers will relish the brio, cunning and suspense of the incident-packed seaborne yarn that fills the novel's closing third. Much, though, has been lost in forsaking the confines of the Wall and the literary choices it enabled. Wilfully, cleverly, Lanchester has knocked down the fences of his own fable. But then storytellers still possess what Defenders, Helps and Others have all lost: absolute freedom.

  • The Wall by John Lanchester (Faber & Faber, £14.99)



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