“Shows us what we are in danger of becoming” – The Wall by John Lanchester

Depending on your point of view, the title of John Lanchester’s latest is liable to make you think of one or both of two things: either you imagine the Wall from Game of Thrones or you picture Donald Trump’s much-vaunted wall. Both of those references are good starting points: GoT because this is a work of fiction, a work of mythical fiction at that, set for the most part atop a wall that now runs the length of the UK and has gathered about it, like “an accent” to quote the book, a set of rules and expressions that serve to define the lives of those who work there (see also Rupert Thomson’s Divided Kingdom); Trump’s wall because Lanchester is doing something here, something topical and relevant, best seen in the views of the youthful narrator Kavanagh and his and others’ antipathy towards older generations who basically fucked it up for everyone who followed (see also ‘Torching the Dusties’ from Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress collection):

“It’s not us, it’s them. Everyone knows what the problem is. The diagnosis isn’t hard – the diagnosis isn’t even controversial. It’s guilt: mass guilt, generational guilt. The olds feel they’ve irretrievably fucked up the world, then allowed us to be born into it. You know what? It’s true. That’s exactly what they did. They know it, we know it. Everybody knows it.”

We join Kavanagh on his first day as a Defender. “It’s cold on the Wall,” he tells us. For just over the first third of the book, Lanchester strives to bring the world to life: the shift patterns (12 hours on, 12 hours off, 2 weeks on, 2 weeks off, one shift on nights, one shift on days), the weather (type 1 cold, type 2 cold), the ways in which each Defender is spread out about the Wall, what they are tasked with doing (looking for Others, who are basically anyone coming from elsewhere to this sceptre isle where people who belong are chipped, in order to stop them getting over the Wall) and how time passes (dreaming of a possible future among the elites (who we only tend to see from a distance, flying overhead travelling from one big meeting to another). There are certain set-ups in the opening of the book that gleam with bright foreshadowing:

“I knew what the rules of the rules of the Wall were – like everyone else, I had known them my whole life. I don’t remember having them explained to me because there was no time before the rules, before the facts of life: the sun comes up in the morning and goes down at night; if you throw something in the air, gravity makes it come back down; if the Others get over, you get put to sea.”

Despite being called The Wall, however, much of the book takes place elsewhere – there is a trip to the Lake District with fellow Defenders, there is a trip to see his girlfriend’s relative and, eventually, without giving too much away, there is a portion of the book spent away from the Wall entirely. This latter part of the book seems superficially to jettison the kind of satirical edge that is established in the opening (where we seem to be looking at the kind of genuine future Brexit may promise) in favour of the kind of Boy’s Own adventure seen in, say, Andrew Motion’s Treasure Island sequels, Silver and The New World.

And yet the novel does seem to circle around to land a larger point. The Wall exists in a not too distant future in which the population has become immured to varying degrees of privation, in which those things that make us happy, that lend comfort, are small and truthful. The Wall exists at a time when such things as heat and cooked food are gradually becoming a thing of the past. Who knows? Perhaps we ourselves will see those days come, when the basics become luxurious. By recognising the beauty of simplicity, however, The Wall arguably makes a strong point that is worth reflecting on as we see crowds of people cheer the latest Governmental defeat (are you for No Deal? CHEER! are you for remain? CHEER! are you for soft Brexit, hard Brexit, no Brexit? CHEER! and don’t worry about the fact that nobody seems to have a single clue about how to resolve anything for the better of anyone): perhaps it is only by recognising the admittedly small truths that we share, that we can begin to build bridges, rather than dynamite them.

Any Cop?: It’s a thoughtful, enjoyable novel, to be sure, aimless in places, slyly satirical, gently sad, yet reaching, all the same, to engage with the world about us and show us what we are in danger of becoming.

 

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