John Lanchester’s two best-known novels had, for their day, an in-the-news feel: The Debt to Pleasure (1996) was about a foodie—a murderous one, as it happens—while Capital (2012) followed a large cast of characters caught up in the financial crash of 2007 – 2008. Now Lanchester has come up with The Wall, a futuristic novel about…the Wall. The structure in question surrounds an island nation, one which we may presume is Britain; but with all the xenophobia and aggressive righteousness it represents, it might as well be here, at home, in the USA.
The Wall, we learn, was constructed after “the Change,” a catastrophe brought on by climate change and resultant rising sea levels, desertification, and general environmental mayhem. It has created mass emigration from affected countries and the attempted entry into this still viable land by refugees called “the Others.” The Wall is manned by Defenders, young men and women performing a mandatory two-year service.
As with all novels about future societies, the rules of the game have to be laid down. Defenders man the Wall in twelve-hour shifts and if any of the Others manage to breach it and escape into the countryside, the Defenders deemed responsible are deprived of the identification chips embedded in all legitimate inhabitants and set out to sea in little crafts to become Others themselves. The escaped Others who are captured—as chipless, they soon are—are given the choice of being “euthanized,” sent back to sea, or becoming “Help”—which is to say, becoming slaves to the better-off inhabitants. “Breeders,” the relatively few men and women who have chosen to have children despite knowing that their future will be bleak, are excused from Defender duty. Because this is not a realistic novel, how all this came to be established is not specified — it’s just the framework.
For the first third of the novel not a lot happens except scene setting and introductions to the first person narrator, Joseph Kavanaugh, and his fellow Defenders, among them a woman who becomes his girlfriend. It’s a bit of a plod, but one that perfectly represents the tedium that the Defenders endure on the Wall, hours and hours of cold and boredom broken only occasionally by the distribution of tea and biscuits and occasional sparks of mordant humor:
‘They put something in the tea to stop you thinking about sex’ somebody said…
‘Yeah,’ said somebody else. ‘They put tea.’
Things finally get rolling with a full-scale tactical-training exercise and the introduction of a character whom Kavanaugh thinks of as “the baby politician,” a figure familiar to us in our own day. He enters the story dishing out a happy-clappy pep talk to a group of Defenders: “You are the best in the world. This country is the best in the world. We have prevailed, we do prevail, and we will prevail.” He disgusts Kavanaugh: “I imagined baby members of the elite being born from chrysalises, already wearing their shiny suits, their ties pre-knotted, their first clichés already on their lips, being wiped down of cocoon matter and pushed towards a podium, ready to make their first speech, spout their first platitude, lose their virginity at lying…. They tell us that everyone goes to the Wall, no exceptions. Somehow, though, when I saw the baby politician, I knew for the first time that that couldn’t be true.”
It should not come as a surprise that a number of the Others eventually do make a successful assault on the Wall, some escaping into the country. As a result, Kavanaugh and friends are set out to sea in a life boat with no map or nautical instruments and with limited supplies. So begins a terrifying voyage into the unknown. Rough seas, blasting sun, pirates, and a colony of exiles transform the last section of the novel into an excellent maritime adventure, a refreshing release from the suffocating air of embattlement, fear, and uncertainty that pervades the first. Out on the seas terror and uncertainty are present and the possibility of survival for this little boatload of exiles is tenuous; still, they are free, living by their wits and taking their destiny into their own hands. The contrast between the two conditions—the oppression of a totalitarian state versus the deadly anarchy of the waves—is stark, a playing out of the choice Thomas Hobbes gave his readers in Leviathan. It may very well be, as Lanchester seems to suggest, ours again some 370 years later.