THE WALL by John Lanchester THE UNSEEN ACADEMIC
This is an occasional series of posts drawing on my excursion into the academic side of creative writing. Having taken a career break from secondary schooling to further my own education with some post graduate study I’ve completed an MA in Creative Writing at Queen’s University Belfast. I’ve now started on a PhD project at the same university with the catchy title “Navigating the mystery of future geographies in climate change fiction.”
So the Hive has kindly given me space to post reviews of climate fiction books as well as blogging thoughts and articles on other aspects of my PhD experience.
I have been reading a fair few examples of contemporary climate fiction and a number of them, having been written against a background of Brexit and Trump, have some uncomfortable resonances for us – and that is as it should be, for all literature is a product of its time. The Wall by John Lanchester offers a particularly bleak vision of the future.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for the speculative fiction author to imagine a dystopian future that feels truly and safely beyond the horizon of our current lived experience. Lanchester’s Booker-longlisted The Wall depicts a near future Great Britain under siege. National service type conscripts do a two year tour of duty on the thousands of miles of new built coastal wall which hold back both the rising sea and the tide of “Others” – refugees seeking sanctuary on the inside of the wall. Our first-person protagonist, Joe Kavanagh, is one of those conscripts scanning the waves for dinghies of Others and trying to shoot them dead before they get to the wall. Given the recent dehumanising machinations of fringe politicians and our own current home secretary, this sounds more like near future Tory policy, than dystopian fiction.
I drafted this review with 2020 grinding towards its tortuous end. I am aware it will get posted in the first few weeks of the United Kingdom’s <sarcasm mode on> bright new future <sarcasm mode off> outside the EU. Somehow that seems a fitting time to be reviewing Lanchester’s tale about a sad xenophobic little island taking potshots at refugee others as the swathes of its population are conscripted to its defence on a wall. While the inciting peril of Lanchester’s world is global sea level rise, there is sadly far too much that feels familiar in the furious isolation of the island kingdom. Lanchester’s first challenge to my suspension of disbelief is simply the suggestion that a UK government could manage the engineering feat of encircling the entire nation in an ocean defying sea wall. Truly King Canute would be amazed.
We meet the first person protagonist Kavanagh on his first night of duty on the wall being introduced to the company of thirty fellow conscripts that he will spend his tour of duty with. My father told me a little bit about his national service experience – one of the last to “get some in” as they say, back in the late 50s. It is a time he still had nightmares about fifty years later. I’ve also read some autobiographical accounts and soldier’s eye view histories of the second World War such as Mark Urban’s The Tank Men or Patrick Gibbs contemporaneous account of being a Torpedo Leader flying Bristol Beauforts out of Malta. Lanchester conveys an authentic sense of a close-knit military community welded together by lives of freezing tedium punctuated by terrifying danger.
In the current political climate, with many invoking some rose-tinted version of the second World War as a halcyon past on which to model a gung-ho reaction to serious socio-political threats (covid, Brexit, climate change) Lanchester presents a compelling grunt’s eye view of a world gone badly wrong. In a way that is reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk the focus on Kavanaugh, the everyman living through tumultuous times, reduces anyone above the rank of Sergeant to a nameless cypher. The Elite who govern are a remote minority seen more often in the vapour trails of their privileged access to jet airplane travel than in the flesh. And when they do descend to mix with Kavanaugh and his mortal associates, they are afforded little more individual monikers than “baby politician.”
There is a certain symmetry between this and the dehumanising homogeneity of the “others” seeking to get over the wall and into the fortified UK. Though these refugees are feared not just because they are willing to kill the guards to try to get entry, but also because of the sanction that faces any company that fails in its duty to defend the fortress Britain. If any “others” do succeed in escaping into the interior then the wall company that failed in its duty suffers the ultimate sanction of banishment. A number of them equal to however many others got in will be sent into exile – cast adrift in a lifeboat on the sea beyond the wall.
Lanchester strikes a lot of resonant notes with his dystopian vision of the future. Besides the military camaraderie, there is the resentment between parents and children. The “Change” has happened within a human lifetime so that Kavanaugh’s parents knew a world of beaches and escaped the responsibility of national Wall service that haunts Kavanaugh’s generation. Parent-child relationships are plagued by guilt and blame so that Kavanaugh’s brief episodes of home leave are unsatisfactory affairs. “It’s like staying in a well-run but emotionally suffocating B&B.” Each side waits for the moment of parting so his parents can return to their guilty pleasure of watching some reruns of TV shows from a world of beaches when the sea was not held back by a monumental wall (Baywatch perhaps?).
In its post climate change isolation the Britain struggles with food supplies which set a limit on its population. However, this does flag up some of the inconsistencies in the world building. “Breeding” is encouraged though not in quite the same way as Attwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. But the elite, battling the popular perception that the world has become to awful a place for anyone to want to bring children into it, are willing to offer privileges – including being excused Wall duty – for those who do breed. It is hard to square the competing elements of a food limited population cap (“we can’t feed and look after all the humans there already are here and now”), a violent resistance to refugee immigration and yet a drive to incentivise procreation.
I have assumed Kavanaugh’s country is a future Britain although he never names it as that. However, it has London as its capital and Kavanaugh’s initial deployment to Ilfracombe sounds quite Devonian. Nonetheless, the geography did trouble me at times since, even allowing for massive sea-level rise there would be a lot of France and central Europe well above water and quite close to the near south of England’s south coast, but those who do venture beyond the wall find only scattered islands, and occasional pirates as though the whole world had been drowned in a biblical flood.
Lanchester extrapolates some credible leaps of technology and authoritarianism, for example the idea of the population all being “chipped” with a subcutaneous electronic ID card and personal record. This badge of belonging to the vestigial civilisation sets the invading Others identifiably apart (unless helped by treacherous insiders to get chipped). However, the watchers on the wall lack weapons any more sophisticated than rifles, grenades and the kind of searchlight system a Second World War POW camp might have boasted. No radar warning system, no night vision goggles? Just a grim command to fix bayonets as though the wall was just a heightened case of trench warfare.
Then again, the conceit of the wall itself is a leap of imagination way beyond the limits of engineering feasibility. An island encompassing barrier capable of holding back sea levels 60 metres higher than today constructed over a decade or so by a country that could manage neither HS2 or a third Heathrow runway on anything like that time scale? While Lanchester positions his novel in a grittily realist near future, there are many places where the realism needs to be taken heavily salted.
However, if this were intended as a novel of characters and plot, rather than realistically fully rendered future world, it also falls short of plausibility. The conspiracy that generates the book’s great twist while having high narrative impact just makes no logical sense in terms of what the characters involved might hope to achieve. So much so, that I wonder if it was retrofitted to an otherwise complete story to increase the drama of one moment.
Others who do make it into the wall are not deported (unlike the wall guards who let them through) but instead enter a kind of enslavement as “help” indentured domestic servants to be deployed by government or rented by individuals. This may be in keeping with the whole dystopian tone of an authoritarian regime that dehumanises and kills or enslaves refugees. However, it doesn’t fit well with the apparent rarity of anyone getting over the wall. It seems unlikely that there would be more than a few thousand “help” compared to the half million or so conscripts needed just to man the wall at anyone time
In the end Lanchester’s book devours its characters and settings at an ever-increasing rate and – a bit like the Midgard serpent eating its own tail – reveals itself as a kind of a mobius strip of a tale. While we are always aware that Kavanaugh is relating his first person narrative of events from not long after they happened, he turns out to be speaking from within the tale in a way which leaves the story incomplete, the reader uncertain of the protagonist’s ultimate fate – a bit like the ending of Romero’s Day of the Dead.
Lanchester presents an interesting imagination of a future era of wartime or siege like privation: the lack of variety to food; the fiercely violently defensive xenophobia and Kavanaugh in the midst of it, aspiring maybe to one day join the elite, to do his service and move on. On the one hand it highlights a climate change issue of refugees. However, notwithstanding Lanchester/Kavanaugh’s entertaining categorisation of type one and type two cold, it avoids real issues of changing climate – and the hotter future that awaits us in an extrapolation of ever hotter hottest summers. It is a story born out of the imaginative insight of the Wall, but one whose verisimilitude cannot withstand too rigorous an inspection, or sustain a prolonged suspension of disbelief. Like many climate change novels (and dystopian films) it demands a relatively sudden fracturing of society to lend impact to its narrative. However, ultimately in presenting a society that demonises and repels refugees, it offers more of a comment on our present than our future.