John Lanchester’s The Wall is frequently, and indeed best, described as ‘dystopian’ – relating to or denoting an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice.
Lanchester’s vision is of a future somewhat shrunken UK surrounded by a 10,000km wall built, primarily, in response to the impact of ‘the Change’ – climate change resulting in dramatically raised sea levels which have destroyed every beach, led to the destruction of food chains and food security, and made fUK a place of cold weather much more closely associated with our latitude than is currently the case; and patrolled by Defenders on a two-year stint of compulsory national service whose job it is to keep out – with extreme prejudice – all those who seek to get over it. This is not because the fUK within resembles anything like a promised land – inter-generational conflict, a society based on the racist exploitation of others, population collapse and a vast level of its limited resource sucked into security see to it that fUK is a place of cold, hatred, totalitarian control, guilt, bitterness and barely-disguised fear – and in which ‘Sweet moderation/Heart of this nation‘ has, finally, deserted us – but it does highlight the desperation motivating those seeking nevertheless to enter.
fUK society is divided into a globalised Elite still able to fly; the elderly, blamed for the disaster since it was on their watch that the Change happened; Defenders, some of whom, like Kavanagh, the central character, dream futilely of joining the Elite but whose more realistic future is to become a Breeder whose key role in staving off further population decline is rewarded with time away from the Wall; and Others – those managing to get over The Wall and who are, once caught up with, given the choice of enslavement or euthanasia. Those who are judged responsible for influxes of Others over the Wall are de-chipped – essentially, they are ‘enemies within’ – and put out to sea on a one-in-and-one-out basis. The prospects of any sort of redemption for Kavanagh and his colleagues appear bleak.
The novel is opaque as regards just how far into the future this vision takes place. Some will see Lanchester’s fUK as a continuation of several trends already present in society (all dystopian novels, including The Road, 1984 and Brave New World are essentially versions of the present). With this in mind, calls for non-intervention in the case of the tiny numbers of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats, on the grounds that such action might encourage others, are being made; while the dehumanising nature of our political discourse and the normalisation of hate speech facilitated by social media platforms and given full voice by Brexit, with Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s Facebook page taken down only yesterday and with Shamima Begum’s image used in ‘light-hearted fun’ at a type of shooting range aimed at young children, give Lanchester’s fiction a very real footing. Unmistakeably, this is also a ‘post’-Brexit novel – its language is the language of Brexit – to add to a burgeoning list. What he is outlining in The Wall is not the future – but it does indeed feel a lot like a version of the future towards which we are currently headed.
Lanchester does not seek to describe the state of fUK. (Incidentally, this is not a term that he uses, but the UK seems still to exist in some way given that Scotland appears to continue to be a part of it, although how much of Scotland is actually left is a moot point given that it is also referred to as ‘the north’.) Indeed, this is not a grim tale of what we have become but to take this, in a quite matter-of-fact way, as a given. This provides a solid starting point for the novel’s exploration of human reactions to their state and to question how on earth it is we have got there. Whereas the history of the present up to September 2001 had been the tearing down of walls, as Lanchester himself has commented, the post-World Trade Center history of the present has represented a dehumanising of the ‘other’ coupled in the last ten years with a post-crash austerity politics which has sought to use the ‘other’ as a target for blame; and on which the present-day version of inter-generational inequality – our children’s generation being the first to transfer resources back to their parents (a reversal of the accepted inter-generational inequality of the past) – has much to comment.
A slightly more ambitious novel than this one might have sought to establish The Wall as a character in its own right but, here, its role is simply a physical barrier while yet underscoring a clear point about our obliviousness to our environment – our inability to learn and to act in its defence. Given the known CO2 emissions involved in the manufacture of concrete, the construction of 10,000km of concrete wall, five metres high on the seaward side and involving ‘millions of tons’ of the stuff, erected in response to the destruction wrought by climate change, provides an acutely ironic comment on our own lack of understanding of what we are doing when it comes to green issues. As indeed, given the environmental impact of air travel, does Kavanagh’s appreciation of the elite as being those that are still able to fly.
As other reviews have indicated, the style of Lanchester’s writing is ‘affectless’ (see here and here – both ££) and its dispassionate nature makes the characters’ role in their own misery somewhat hard to work through until we reach the final section. fUK is an individualised, post-collective society – a reminder that this is a state which those driving Brexit seek further to entrench – and the implications of that for the UK’s current direction is clear. There is no collective organisation in response to the conditions in which people find themselves and neither, does it seem, is there any attempt at riots and revolution.
Such attempts may of course have already been defeated and, as I say, it is not Lanchester’s aim to describe what we have become but to use this is a platform to contemplate why. One of my earlier thoughts while reading the first two of the book’s thirds, aided not least by the almost complete lack of typos on the pages, was that this was a novel written by artificial intelligence; or that the characters we meet within it are actually cyborgs. Neither is true (at least, I don’t think either is true) but key to understanding how the characters interact with their society, and therefore to how Lanchester contemplates our current state, is our increasing lack of empathy. The Wall is, here, not without hope. Re-learning, in the first place, and then re-establishing empathy – the key also to addressing a lack of collective awareness and solidarity – may yet give Kavanagh and his colleagues the key to overcoming their state. It is a long way back from there – but if we are to avoid that state, re-establishing empathy before we have to re-learn it, and while we still have time to appreciate precisely what it means, may yet help us avoid such a state’s worst excesses.