In The Great Wall of China, Franz Kafka described the construction of a wall intended to protect against “the people of the north” but which was really designed to keep those building it occupied, both in body and in mind. The wall was built in sections, so that “many great gaps were left, which were only filled in gradually and bit by bit, some, indeed, not till after the official announcement that the wall was finished”. Kafka, like Donald Trump, knew that walls needn’t be built in order for them to become effective political symbols: walls in the head are often just as powerful as those in the world.
John Lanchester’s fifth novel is a speculative fantasy about a wall that is insistently, stubbornly real. The Wall is set in the near future, in a familiar version of Britain (people still eat jam and send emails, and go on walking holidays in the Lake District), marred by ecological collapse. The Wall — always capitalised — was erected after an environmental catastrophe known as “the Change” rendered most of the world uninhabitable.
The seas beyond the Wall are populated by bands of desperate migrants known as “Others”, but within it life staggers on. Fuel is scarce, so nuclear power provides electricity. Sufficient food is grown with the help of agricultural drones and bots, but most of the citizens have given up on the future. Few people choose to have children; those who do are known as “Breeders”. “We broke the world and have no right to keep populating it,” says the narrator Joseph Kavanagh (who shares most of his name with Kafka’s Joseph K). “We can’t feed and look after all the humans there already are, here and now . . . most of them are starving and drowning, dying and desperate; so how dare we make more of them?”
To protect the Wall from the Others, every citizen is sent on a tour of duty as a “Defender”. If you successfully defend the Wall on your tour, you are allowed to live out the rest of your life within its protection; if you fail, and the Others breach it on your watch, you are put to sea in their place. For the Others, crossing the Wall is a desperate act: the entire resident population is micro-chipped and tracked by the state, and when they are eventually caught, the Others are offered nothing but a choice between euthanasia, slavery and exile.
It is a bleak, Borgesian conceit and, though it is tempting to read the novel figuratively — as an allegory about global warming, or nativist isolationism, or Brexit — really, as Kavanagh himself is at pains to stress, the Wall should be understood literally. Just as the cold you experience there “isn’t like anything else” but simply is, the Wall is a wall is a wall.
Lanchester is an enviably versatile writer with Catholic tastes. He is a keen video-gamer, and a fan of fantasy and science-fiction writing (one of the inspirations here might be the Wall of Westeros: he has outed himself as a Game of Thrones addict in the past), but his previous novels have been, for the most part, confined to the real world of literary fiction.
Lanchester’s debut, The Debt to Pleasure (1996), was a comic grotesque about a pathological gourmand on a murder spree (for many years Lanchester was the restaurant critic for The Observer). He followed this with Mr Phillips (2000), a funny and poignant novel about a suburban accountant wandering around London, having lost his job. Fragrant Harbour (2002) was a historical romance for which Lanchester drew on his childhood experiences in Hong Kong.
His most recent work of fiction, Capital (2012), was Lanchester’s take on the state-of-the-nation novel. Set in a single street in south London, it took in, among other topics, the housing crisis, economic migration, the lives of the super-rich and the afterlives of the war on terror. Back in 2012 these felt like the big themes that would come to define our era, but now Capital feels a little complacent, something of a warm-up act for the greater global and national uncertainties we currently face.
That Lanchester has turned to fantasy in response might suggest that the lyrical realist mode in which he wrote his previous books feels insufficient. The Wall is quite different from anything he has written before and it is, I think, his best novel — though it has none of the sentence-by-sentence virtuosity of his earlier works. The story is told in flat, affectless prose, like that of JG Ballard in his pomp, but the overwhelming influence is the Kafka of The Trial and In the Penal Colony.
As with Kafka, though, it is hard to say what in the end it all might mean. The Wall could be about many things, but its real power stems from the fact that it never collapses into straightforward metaphorical equivalence. It asks only to be read on its own terms: as an unsettling, compulsive and brilliant portrait of powerlessness.
The Wall, by John Lanchester, Faber & Faber, RRP£14.99, 288 pages
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