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The Wall

Review

The Wall

John Lanchester’s previous work, both his fiction and nonfiction, have demonstrated his deep engagement with the systems --- from real estate investment to public transit --- that define modern lives. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that THE WALL offers a distinctly bureaucratic, but no less terrifying, vision of a future Britain after environmental catastrophe --- what the novel calls the “Change.”

We first meet Lanchester’s protagonist, Joseph Kavanagh, as he’s about to embark on his state-mandated two years of military service, stationed atop the coastal walls that now encircle Britain (or what’s left of it anyway). Sea levels have risen catastrophically, and the walls that now surround the country serve not only to keep the ocean waters at bay but also to deter the so-called Others, who are desperate to escape the violent cataclysms that have engulfed many other countries perhaps less well-resourced than Britain. Resources are tight everywhere, however, and so the rule is this: If a so-called Defender, as Kavanagh is about to become, allows an Other to enter the country, that Defender is sent out to sea --- and certain death.

"It would be easy to dismiss THE WALL as a sort of post-apocalyptic thought experiment, a 'what-if' that is unlikely ever to happen. But some of its elements sidle awfully close to arguments and apprehensions that already characterize our present-day discourse."

Twelve-hour shifts atop the Wall give a whole new meaning to the word “boredom,” as Kavanagh struggles to keep his mind sharp since, as the company’s enigmatic Captain and a visiting politician remind him repeatedly, they could --- and most likely will --- be attacked by Others at any time. But the strange, almost otherworldly experience of being on the Wall also engenders fast friendships. Kavanagh develops a fondness not only for his shift-mates but also for the woman who brings the troops tea and even (although a bit begrudgingly) for the man who he briefly meets twice a day when they switch shifts.

Much like Kavanagh’s time on the Wall, the novel is filled with long stretches of contemplation, interrupted by scenes of brutal violence. Here we have a stark vision of a future in which survival can’t be taken for granted, outsiders are alternately feared and exploited, and first-world privilege is ever more fiercely defended. It would be easy to dismiss THE WALL as a sort of post-apocalyptic thought experiment, a “what-if” that is unlikely ever to happen. But some of its elements sidle awfully close to arguments and apprehensions that already characterize our present-day discourse. This is particularly apparent when Kavanagh, on a break between deployments, visits his parents’ relatively comfortable suburban home.

Kavanagh reflects on the fundamental inability for his parents’ generation to understand his own: “The olds didn’t do time on the Wall, because there was no Wall, because there had been no Change so the Wall wasn’t needed. This means that the single most important and formative experience in the lives of my generation --- the big thing we all have in common --- is something about which the olds have exactly no clue.” Kavanagh and his colleagues (rightly) blame the older generation for destroying the world that the younger generation has now inherited and must (to the best of their ability) defend.

Lanchester’s novel also will likely spark readers’ reflections on consequences of climate change that many may not even have imagined. “There are some people my age who have a thing about beaches,” Kavanagh explains at one point. “Not me. Show me an actual beach, and I’ll express some interest in beaches. But you know what? The level of my interest corresponds exactly to the number of existing beaches. And there isn’t a single beach left, anywhere in the world.” Chilling reminders like this about all that’s at stake in the face of climate change are, in the end, just as horrifying as the scenes of bloody conflict that punctuate the book --- and they are what make THE WALL essential reading for anyone who cares about the planet’s future.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 15, 2019

The Wall
by John Lanchester

  • Publication Date: March 5, 2019
  • Genres: Dystopian, Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 1324001631
  • ISBN-13: 9781324001638