In The Wall John Lanchester takes an imaginative leap into Britain’s future to dramatise anxieties about inequality, mass migration and climate changeby Lucy Daniel / December 11, 2018 / Leave a comment
What might be the consequences of our obsession with consumption, and of global inequalities and mass migration? In The Wall John Lanchester takes an imaginative leap into Britain’s future to dramatise such anxieties.
Lanchester’s previous novel, Capital, humanely satirised the financial excesses of London, where a lucky few depend on the labour of recent immigrants. The Wall moves beyond satire into full-on dystopia. An enormous wall has been built around Britain to keep out all “Others,” de facto enemies who try to enter the island fortress. A climate-related catastrophe known as “the Change” has made these others cast themselves out on lonely, desperate journeys to get here.
Kavanagh is a young “defender of the wall” at the start of his national service, which has been reintroduced. Two bleak years patrolling the wall stretch ahead of him. He begins to wish for some action. Indeed, engagingly played out action scenes drive the story. Strangely it’s not depressing, despite the dark scenario. Innate affability and a heartening tale of human endurance even make it a little sappy compared with, say, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Only a couple of scenes allude to the time before the Change: long ago people could purchase “everything, all the time,” before “mass guilt” set in. Now the luckier inhabitants of the island have “Help” (slaves recruited from among captured Others). Even the more objectionable characters describe this as “a falling away, a lessening of one’s own humanity.”
At times the novel feels too literal and simplistic. Kavanagh fantasises about being in one of the planes carrying members of the elite, longing “to be so far up above you could no longer see people.” In constructing a universal fable, Lanchester skimps on the sort of detail that made Capital feel so relevant. But he asks some fundamental questions.
The Wall by John Lanchester (Faber & Faber, £14.99)