The Wall

by John Lanchester

reviewed by Nick Pyenson

Each one of us has a story about the day coronavirus upended our lives. I was passing through London on the way back to the US from fieldwork in the Middle East. My business in the UK was brief, less than a day, but during the course of it, the president of the United States gave a live address from the Oval Office closing borders with Europe. Inadvertently, I ended up in the crush of travelers surging to return; in the months since, I’ve thought about both my luck and the people outside my nation I won’t see soon again.

The cataclysms that have dominated our shared experiences over the past year—be they political, epidemiologic, or environmental—bring near-future fiction so much closer to daily experience. That should improve our reception of the bevy of literature that braids political, science, and climate futures together, the niche to which novelist and essayist John Lanchester’s The Wall belongs.

The premise is an easy one: we meet a solitary young man named Kavanagh in a near-future country, sealed off from the rest of the world by the most direct means possible, the titular Wall. This massive concrete border encircles the entire shoreline of what we presume is Great Britain, but geography and politics are mostly elided from Kavanagh’s crisp narration. The Wall is where Kavanagh and other young men and women serve for two monotonous years as Defenders, until they are permitted to rejoin society. The Wall is necessary because the state must be protected from the Others—faceless but always cunning intruders, arriving by boat to mount the ramparts. Failing to stop an Other means being put to sea, a death sentence.

Life inside Lanchester’s Wall resembles the fictitious British countryside in dystopias from George Orwell to P. D. James: nostalgically quaint, with people mostly unaware of the mechanisms that ostensibly ensure their security. This future imperfect in The Wall is also technolite. People possess small mobile phone-like devices and have biochips implanted to track their movement, yet tea ladies deliver hot drinks to Wall-bound Defenders from bicycles. The de facto surveillance state is less a worry than the implications of the Wall itself: the militarism that it sustains and the rising seas of the broken, greater world that it keeps out. Lanchester does a good job revealing less rather than more about how the Wall came to be, letting the greater narrative spin on isolationism as a matter of generational strife: “Who broke the world? They wouldn’t say that they did. And yet it broke on their watch.”

The narration and dialogue are smooth, from the lexicon of life on the Wall—“water, sky, wind, cold, and of course concrete”—to Kavanaugh’s own ambitions to join the protected elite who do not serve. By the third act, everything is upended by Others, and Kavanaugh is put to sea in a small boat with a traitor, a politician, and his girlfriend. The mixed cast works, and here the book takes an increasingly harrowing and desperate feel, recalling similar moments in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. As in that novel, humanity operates at the margins of broad changes brought about by calamity.

The Wall is a book squarely for our time: set a few minutes after a hypertrophied Brexit with an industrial dose of the nativism that is more familiar to American readers. The dystopian conceit is a zero say-do gap where policy is manifest in the most literal and stark proportions. It’s not a new trick, but in Lanchester’s hands, The Wall shows how calamity cannot cleave politics from environmentalism. They are fused as much for Kavanaugh as for anyone mired in a global pandemic that started as a viral spillover from other species. This novel is necessary reading for citizens of the new normal—because, as much as we may wish otherwise, we’re all in the same boat.

Published on January 12, 2021