author John Lanchester

Booker 2019: The Wall

30th August 2019

The Wall by John Lanchester

Faber, London, 2019

Reviewed by Claire Steele

The Wall, John Lanchester’s fifth novel, invokes a bleak vision of Britain in a dystopian future that is all too plausible. Following an unspecified climate disaster, Britain, now known only as ‘the island’, has been isolated by a massive wall, which demands constant defence against ‘the Others’. Lanchester provides us with a vision of Britain that reads our current anxieties about climate change, tribalism, moral ambiguity, nationalism, and scarcity of resources following disastrous political decisions and amplifies them into an environment that is unremittingly hostile, monochrome and rigid in its imposition of fealty.

Like any rigid system, the Wall removes any of the obligations or privileges of choice. It must be defended. Its demands are ruthless. The Others must be prevented from scaling its heights, and if they do breach its boundaries, they, and an equivalent number of defenders, must be thrown back into the sea to certain death. The novel opens with Joseph Kavanagh commencing his first night of defending the wall, with only another 729 nights to go.

Lanchester offers us an insight into the challenges of representing this repetitive, undifferentiated system over a lengthy period of time: “Prose is misleading, though, when it comes to saying what it feels and seems like. The days are the same, with variations in the weather, and the view is the same, with variations in the visibility, and the people either side of you are the same, so it’s static; it’s not a story.” He then goes on, with some bravura, to demonstrate what it is, if it’s not a story: “it’s sometimes concretewaterskywindcold, when they all hit you as one thing, as a single entity, combined, like a punch.”

There’s a great deal of emphasis upon the cold, and, indeed, rather than feeling truly chilled by the implications of this battle against an array of implacable forces, the novel left me cold. Lanchester’s determination to find a linguistic representation of monotony, coupled with the routine invariability of Kavanagh’s shifts combined to plunge me into an almost suffocating ennuie. The characters never really developed: they were marched out into the concrete, water, sky, wind and cold, and marched back, until they were, eventually, thrown into crisis. I was moved to ask myself, should a crisis feel like a welcome relief? Did the crises reveal anything of them as characters? The answer to both these questions was the same.

As a symbol, the idea of the wall has great provenance. From the Great Wall of China, to the Berlin Wall, from Hadrian’s Wall to Trump’s wall, from the Walls of Jericho through to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, walls have signified defence against the ‘barbarians’, depending on which side of the wall you stand. In Lanchester’s novel, the wall shores up defeat, for the land it is protecting is already ravaged, the morality it defends is already bankrupt. But I don’t think that any novel can be satisfying read solely on an allegorical level. A novel has to do much more than operate as a cautionary tale. Dystopian novels provide us with some of literature’s most stringent cultural and social critiques, but here, the critique feels stale, lacking in affect. Maybe this is deliberate, a feature of the monotony of the wall. Maybe the lack of affect – what Kavanagh calls the lack of ‘accent’ arises from that sheer, unscaleable, unavoidable fact. When we isolate ourselves so thoroughly that life only consists of a grim, trudging defence, there really is no emotional truth to what we must defend and all that is left to us is to go through the motions. Luck is periodically invoked, but always undercut with the ironic caveat that if we were really lucky, we wouldn’t be in this situation.

The structure of the novel is circular, with its end repeating its beginning. The message is clear: there is no end to it. As Kavanagh tells us, “it doesn’t matter where you are… it’s basically always the same.” Life on the Wall is not a story, because as a society we have traded story, which is all about risk, for defence, which is all about minimising risk. The novel teeters on the internal contradictions of this. Lanchester partly succeeds in resolving these discrepancies, but for my money there are more troubling accounts to be told of what the future might hold.

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