Keep Cold and Carry On
Book Review — The Wall by John Lanchester
Catastrophic sea level rises. A wall to keep out “Others”. Generational conflict.
This is what Britain has to look forward to in the next few decades, according to John Lanchester’s intriguing novel, The Wall.
The plot is a simple one but — as I commented in a review of Robert Harris’s The Second Sleep, which covers similar ground in a far less successful way — that simplicity is a strength. Lanchester spends very little time describing how these characters and their society have ended up in this mess. He’s far more interested in the mundane details of living in this world, and how readily we can acclimatise to extreme situations.
The novel centres on the Everyman Kavanagh, his lover Hifa and their fellow Defenders on a particular stretch of the National Coastal Defence Structure — more commonly known as “the Wall”. The Wall encircles Britain and was built at some point in the recent past to defend the nation from “Others”, who are increasingly desperate to find a home on dry land after climate change has turned Earth into something resembling Kevin Costner’s Waterworld.
These twenty-somethings are responsible for defending their section for a period of two years. They have no choice in the matter and if they fail in their defence and allow Others to make it over the Wall, an equivalent number of Defenders will be put to sea as punishment, regardless of their fault.
It’s a terrifying prospect but The Wall shows it’s possible to be scared and mind-numbingly bored at the same time. You may need to fight to the death at any moment but that doesn’t stop you from also being cold, hungry, tired, and resentful of an older generation whose selfishness has dumped you in this mess.
The novel has plenty to say about the Self/Other dichotomy and suggests the boundary between the two categories is permeable. It’s a pretty obvious point and one that doesn’t really get developed in any meaningful way.
The conflict between generations, by contrast, is one I would have loved to hear more about. Grousing about the selfishness of Baby Boomers is hardly a new topic of conversation around the dinner table but it’s one that has reshaped the debate about climate change in the last year or so.
It’s not giving away too much to reveal that Kavanagh and his comrades fail in their duty and are put to sea, and the second half of the novel focuses on their efforts to survive capsizing, attacks by pirates, starvation and thirst.
Eventually Kavanagh and Hifa find a safe haven on the ocean in the form of an oil rig, which has been abandoned by all but a mute, slightly crazed but apparently harmless man. There’s plenty of food and even some fuel, and we leave them hunkering down for what will presumably be a long stay.
But this ending is deeply ambiguous. Presumably the food will run out eventually and what will they do then? There’s no apparent resolution to that question. In fact, there’s a sense of circularity in it all. The book ends with Hifa asking for Kavanagh to tell her a story as she falls asleep, which he begins to do using the very words that opened the novel, “It’s cold on the Wall.”
While ambiguous, this ending is part and parcel of this novel’s distrust of grand narratives. Politicians in this world speak with forked tongues; parents’ words of wisdom are hollow. Even the cataclysm that has affected this world so profoundly is referred to in strikingly vague terms. Clearly it’s climate-related but when characters talk about what has happened, they only talk about a “change”, a “shift”, an “ending”. There’s no real story to be told about it. Why would you bother? This is the new reality and the only meaningful thing to do is get used to it.
So much of our politics is driven by the urge to tell a story about what’s happening in order to justify what will be done in our name. The Wall is deeply sceptical about those stories and grounds itself instead in mundane, concrete details. Although Kavanagh might be part of a massive, nationwide effort to defend Britain against invasion, this grand, heroic story — one that politicians glory in — doesn’t really matter much when you’re up on the Wall itself:
life on the Wall is more like a poem than it is like a story. Days don’t vary much; there isn’t much a-to-b. There isn’t much narrative. You do have the constant prospect of action, the constant risk of sudden and total disaster — but that’s not the same as stuff actually happening.
The one redeeming feature of storytelling in The Wall is its capacity to bring people together. It might not be able to shape the world. The story might not have a happy ending. But the simple act of telling stories is all we have as we sit alone, surrounded by ocean, waiting for the food to run out.