The Wall by John Lanchester, review: A dystopian novel that is almost unbearably timely

This story about disafffected millenials forced to guard a border wall around the British Isles comes a little too close for comfort

Daisy Buchanan
Friday 25 January 2019 14:26
Lanchester sees one street as a microcosm of life in the capital
Lanchester sees one street as a microcosm of life in the capital

A few weeks ago a friend – also an occasional book reviewer – was bemoaning the state of her “to read” pile. “I wish publishers would calm down a bit with the dystopias,” she said. “It’s ALL dystopias. We’re on the brink of living in one, I really, really don’t want to read about any.” I thought of her words when I started John Lanchester’s new novel, The Wall.

It’s timely. In fact, it’s too timely. I feel for Lanchester. What probably seemed alarmingly prescient at the time of writing has become almost unbearable to read. It doesn’t seem fair that his work should suffer from being too relevant, but if I struggled with the prose it’s because those endless stretches of grey, cold concrete were looming a little too close for comfort.

Kavanagh is a young man, and one of thousands of Defenders standing guard, for days at a time, around a solid fortress that encases the British Isles. On a kind of national service, it is his job to stop the Others from getting in.

We meet Kavanagh on his first day. Our shoulders ache with his. We shiver when he comments on the bitter cold. We taste the gritty, dusty Power bars doled out to the Defenders. For anyone who has ever bought something from a petrol station that advertises itself by the number of grammes of protein it contains, this detail seems too real to be dystopian. Lanchester’s writing speaks to the senses – his descriptions vivid.

The true horror of life on The Wall lies in its monotony; the most barbaric, brutal moments become oddly refreshing. The trouble with the novel is that Lanchester is so committed to ensuring we see and feel exactly what his protagonist sees and feels that we experience the boredom and horror of a 12-hour shift in what seems like real time.

The book is full of chilly anger. Kavanagh and the Defenders are largely resigned to a quiet fury against the Olds – their parents and people of their parents’ generation, who quietly accept the charges levelled against them. As Kavanagh explains: “The Olds feel they irretrievably f****d up the world, then allowed us to be born into it. You know what? It’s true.”

Breeders, who can exempt themselves from Wall duty, are the subject of bitterness and pity. People are permitted to perpetuate the species, but no one wants to. This perspective is the freshest and most thoughtprovoking aspect of the novel. At a time when millennials are mocked and often reviled for our habits, choices and lack of disposable income, Lanchester offers real, timely insight into our inheritance of debt, in both a fiscal and environmental sense. Kavanagh and his colleagues appear to be very millennial nihilists. Instead of theft and ultraviolence, there are sporadic hangovers and a trip to the Lake District.

But this also creates the novel’s greatest problem. In line with the most common observation about millennials, Kavanagh and his friends are just a little too bland. In making his experience as universal as possible, detail is lost, and there just isn’t enough spark to create a needed sense of urgency.

There are some strong jokes – the description of Kavanagh’s parents’ house as “a well run but emotionally suffocating B&B”, and the idea that the people who run The Wall are lacing the tea with something that stops you from thinking of sex. I thought Lanchester very effectively had his characters perform a kind of emotional striptease, everyone’s humanity and vulnerability gradually revealed from under their bulky clothing.

There is also a love story, but it’s a struggle. Hifa, the romantic heroine, is given no dimension beyond the obvious physical ones Kavanagh is interested in. I waited for a 500 Days of Summer-style switch, in which the rug would be pulled out from under us, and his gaze would be revealed as reductive, but there was nothing doing.

The Wall is an ambitious book, and thorough, even though it’s painting a broad dystopia. It’s about climate change, but it could be about the refugee crisis, Brexit or borders in America. Still, even the subzero temperatures we’re plunged into aren’t quite enough to chill the reader. The lighter, livelier parts of the story throw the horror into sharp relief – but there simply aren’t enough of them. If the book was less hard-going, we might connect to the narrative more keenly, and want to strive for change.

This has to be the ultimate function of dystopia in art. Otherwise we’re not hearing a message but simply consuming another observation about the world at its worst.

‘The Wall’ by John Lanchester is published by Faber

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