By John Lanchester
The wall has slowly been gaining ground as a metaphor for our time. There had been intimations in the late twentieth century, like when gated communities became news items in the U.S., but it wasn’t long before people took the same local social fear and enlarged the wall to more grandiose heights.
You could see it first in works of the imagination, with walls keeping hordes of the undead at bay in movies like World War Z and the popular novel series and cable show Game of Thrones. From there it was a short step to making the wall a political rallying cry (“Build the wall!”), with authoritarian types from Viktor Orbán’s Hungary to Donald Trump’s United States railing against the threat of tides of immigration. Indeed, a wall could be seen as protecting insecure nations from all kinds of threats – not only from immigrants, for example, but from sea levels rising due to global climate change.
I’m reminded of the way William Carlos Williams thought of the way the atomic bomb possessed the imagination of people in the 1960s. In his book Pictures from Breughel (1962) he wrote of how the “mere picture / of the exploding bomb / fascinates us / so that we cannot wait / to prostrate ourselves / before it.” As a picture, an image, and then a metaphor the bomb with “its childlike / insistence” took hold of everyone during the height of the Cold War. It became something people put faith in to keep them safe, even as it also represented apocalyptic levels of global destruction.
I think the wall, or the Wall as it’s rendered in John Lanchester’s dystopic novel, operates in much the same way in our own day. Arriving to stand sentry on it, the book’s narrator Joseph Kavanagh is initially impressed by its sheer size. “What you mainly think,” he says as he confronts it,
is that the Wall is taller than you expected. Of course you’ve seen it before, in real life and in pictures, maybe even in your dreams. (That’s one of the things you learn on the Wall: that lots of people dream about it, long before they’re sent there.)
This is almost always a bad thing in fiction, when cultural totems colonize the unconscious and the life of the imagination. Think of the way commercial jingles infect the brain patterns of sleeping children in Don DeLillo’s White Noise. It used to be the Bomb. Now it’s become the Wall, an old technology for a new Cold War. As conceived by Lanchester, it’s much like Hitler’s Atlantic Wall in Normandy as seen in Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, with the brutalist poetry of coldconcretewindskywater replacing Barbaric, Mystical, and Bored.
The Wall does double duty for the two threats I mentioned: keeping out unwanted immigrants, or Others, and keeping back rising sea levels brought on by an environmental meltdown dubbed the Change (one effect of the new political structure being the takeover of the language by increased use of capitalization). It is the last line of defence of the homeland, which no longer feels very much like anyone’s home. Or at least it doesn’t to Kavanagh:
Home: it didn’t just seem as if home was a long way away, or a long time ago, it actually felt as if the whole concept of home was strange, a thing you used to believe in, an ideology you’d once been passionate about but had now abandoned. Home: the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in. Somebody had said that. But once you had spent time on the Wall, you stop believing in the idea that anybody, ever, has no choice but to take you in. Nobody has to take you in. They can choose to, or not.
In his non-fiction, and his novels Mr. Phillips and Capital, Lanchester has written fiction that makes good use of the sort of material that feeds today’s editorial pages if not the headlines. Immigration and climate change are the two obvious ones in play here, but there are also asides on matters like the depopulation of the countryside, social inequality (a class of helots known as the Help do all the “chores and shitwork”), and a profound generational divide. With regard to the latter, Kavanagh (and Lanchester, I think) has no illusions about how we got into this mess:
None of us can talk to our parents. By “us” I mean my generation, people born after the Change. You know that thing where you break up with someone and say, It’s not you, it’s me? This is the opposite. 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 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.
The least Kavanagh’s generation can do is stop breeding, which is a route most of them have taken. It’s just the responsible thing to do.
There is a real insight here. Young people in this world are deeply conservative. What the Wall promises is stasis, and that’s good. “The only things that can happen are bad things. So you want nothing to happen.” All change, like the Change, is disastrous. And so while nothing ever happens on the Wall, this is good and “that’s the way we like it.” Until of course something does happen – this is a novel after all – and it is a disaster.
It’s hard to think of a more depressing zeitgeist. The young people don’t just want to avoid having children, they’ve become reactionary old fogies. But here we are. Kavanagh indulges pastoral dreams of someday living on a commune with his friends. “We’d maybe live on a farm, we’d maybe have, you know, goats. The kind of thing farm people had.” But as he’s already observed, there are no more farm people, only bots tending the crops. Meanwhile, his friend wants to go to college after he’s served his time on the Wall and study literature. He carries a paperback Wordsworth around with him and hopes to become an academic. I had to shake my head at this even being an imaginable career path post-Change, but I think Lanchester’s point is that all these plans for the future are warmed-over retirement fantasies, grounded in a mythic view of England’s past. Only you can’t go home again, especially when there’s no home.
The ending extends the fable-like texture of the rest of the book in a way that is, as they say, ripe with ambiguity and irony. Perhaps the story is just going to keep repeating itself, or perhaps it really is the end of the world. And if it is the end of the world, well, we can’t say it’s been a good run but perhaps we can say that it’s been enough.
Review first published online May 13, 2023.