‘The Wall’ almost manages political significance, and not much else

Thursday, September 5, 2019 - 6:02pm

John Lanchester

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There is a 10,000-kilometer-long concrete wall surrounding the entirety of the United Kingdom. The world has been shredded by The Change, a climatic disaster that has caused oceans worldwide to swell. The remains of the UK are governed by groomed politicians who are showered in special privileges. In waves, “Others” come desperately to the Wall’s edge to be turned away or killed. “The Wall” is just as ominous and politically drenched — if not more so — as its title suggests.

Longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, John Lanchester’s fifth novel unabashedly turns up the use of metaphor to craft his dystopian world. It’s clear from the starting gun that he’s out to deliver a message on immigration and the dangers of environmental ignorance. A weakly-veiled future United Kingdom established in the first pages, the story surrounds Kavanagh — or Chewy, as his company calls him — who has been recruited for his mandatory two-year service as a Defender on the Wall. Lanchester bolts into a second-person opening here: “It’s cold on the Wall. That’s the first thing that everyone tells you…” which seems to suggest that the previous Booker winner is out to produce more than just a regurgitated, sloppy dystopian piece, but rather something evocative, brave and literarily fresh. Readers are introduced to Kavanagh as he is introduced to the ill-omened, danger-nipped blankness of the Wall. Although this second-person foray is washed away after a few pages, the effect remains. Effortlessly and quickly, Lanchester achieves the intrigue of young adult fiction while developing a style capable of moving a reader with prose.

Unfortunately, only the former facet is maintained. Spending twelve hour shifts each day on the Wall facing the sea, Kavanagh falls in love with a woman in his company. He trains and encounters Others. He visits his distant and guilt-ridden parents on his time off. And then the worst happens: Following an attack on the Wall in which Others are unintentionally allowed through, Kavanagh and his and associates are forced to leave their protected home country. They are forced out to sea to become Others.

To his credit, Lanchester crafts a fantastic pushing-your-bedtime-to-read novel. “The Wall” never sees a dull passage — even in sections describing Kavanagh merely watching the sea from his post, Lanchester creates an aura of oncoming danger (even when there is none) that makes the work impossible to quit. But while these moments of unyielding suspense make “The Wall” as fun as YA Fiction, the remainder of the novel unfortunately mismanages this style. Lanchester does not allow his story to breach the wall of this Suzanne Collins-like brevity and three-quarters character development. As in fellow Booker longlister, “My Sister, the Serial Killer,” Lanchester’s writing never jumps above average.

But it’s also clear that in developing a dystopian landscape Lanchester has set out to do more than merely write something literarily impressive. From its inception, the environment of “The Wall” is metaphorically-charged enough that its clear what Lanchester wants to say. A message sympathetic to both immigration and climate activists boils beneath the book’s surface. But does Lanchester succeed in cultivating it?

The short answer is no.

In her poem on the experience of a refugee and immigrant, poet Warsan Shire ends her work with a sharp tone: “I’ll see you on the other side.” It is a suggestion that stings with the reality a displaced person — how easily it can happen to anyone. Do not neglect me, Shire seems to warn. It could be you. To an extent, “The Wall,” with a relative success, reflects this approach to imagining immigration. Very quickly, characters in “The Wall” go from those keeping migrants out to desperate migrants themselves. Lanchester repeats this mantra of “what I once had” throughout the novel. From the start, Kavanagh has nearly everything he could want; he manages to complain listlessly about the cold air outside. By the end of the novel, he is left speechless at the mere sight of an oil lamp. Long-term transitions like this do a sufficient job of entering the story into the political conversation, and dare to force empathy for migrants a country would dare to keep out.

Though beyond this one trend, Lanchester never manages to deliver the blow that other science fiction novels (say, “The Handmaid’s Tale” or “Cat’s Cradle”) achieve. This is primarily due to a lack of strong characterization for Kavanagh. Prepared to shoot desperate refugees on sight, the main character in “The Wall” never has much thought about the society he protects. This indifference is not the stinging type that acts as a magnet to force readers to acknowledge the scenario themselves. Readers simply don’t care. Without this acknowledgement and without many humanizing glimpses of The Others outside of the Wall, it is too easy to forget about the political implications established from the start.

Who is Lanchester trying to convince? This much is unclear. “The Wall” is a span of intense reading that is moving when one learns of its plot. After this, though, Lanchester’s work is too constrained to make much of a lasting impact.