Saturday 23 February 2019

The Wall: An Orwellian dystopia that captures anxiety of our decade

Fiction: The Wall, John Lanchester, Faber & Faber, hardback, 288 pages, €20.99

Turning wisdom upside down: Lanchester
Turning wisdom upside down: Lanchester
The Wall by John Lanchester

Jake Kerridge

Dystopian fiction is really a form of journalism. Orwell's 1984 is not so much a great work of imagination as a logical extrapolation of what would happen if the follies he reported on went unchecked. It is as necessary a conclusion to the body of Orwell's essays and columns as the visitation of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come was to the work of the earlier two spectres.

John Lanchester has some claim to be the Orwell of our day, a brilliant journalist-novelist with a rare gift for reconstructing the chains of cause and effect behind the often inexplicable events in the headlines, and a Chestertonian ability to turn received wisdom upside down.

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His last novel, Capital (2012), which was adapted for BBC television, was an unashamed state-of-the-nation survey, a dramatisation of the contents of his reporter's notebook. But if in the decades to come I want to recapture the feeling of what this decade was like, what we hoped for and worried about, I expect I am more likely to reread Lanchester's new novel, The Wall - despite its being set in the (hopefully distant) future. Featuring politicians exercised by the possibility of boat-borne migrants arriving on their shores, the book is topical. The story takes place several years after an environmental catastrophe known as "The Change". This has led to a rise in sea levels so drastic that in Britain a giant concrete wall has been built along the whole coastline. Nobody under the age of 25 has ever seen a beach.

Much of the rest of the world has fared worse than Britain, resulting in a migration crisis that makes our world in 2019 look like a model of stability. Importing food is no longer practical so Britain has become self-sufficient, but resources are too scarce to allow anybody in; and, for simplicity's sake, nobody is allowed out.

In the face of all this, politicians trumpet the message that nothing is a greater threat than foreigners coming over to the UK and eating their turnips. So the British populace meekly accept the return of conscription, and every young person, with no exemptions, must do two years' service "on the Wall".

As 'Defenders', their task is to spend hours staring out to sea, keeping a lookout for, and liquidate on sight, boats containing 'Others', as migrants are known. Those Others who do make it over the Wall are invariably caught and forced to become "Help" - ie, slaves for the rich. But a strict one-in, one-out policy is adhered to, so any Defenders who let Others slip past them are forced to put to sea and make shift as Others themselves.

The first section is perhaps the most memorable as Lanchester sets himself the always dangerous challenge of making boredom seem interesting. Through his narrator, a young Defender called Joseph Kavanagh, he skilfully gives us a flavour of the interminable tedium of life on the Wall. Later on it becomes a more conventional but compelling adventure, as a series of disasters cause Kavanagh to question the dehumanising rhetoric about Others that he has been fed all his life.

The novel's only major flaw is that its world-building feels slightly perfunctory. Life on the Wall is brilliantly evoked, but the scraps of information we get about life in the rest of the country don't seem to add up to anything coherent. In Lanchester's vision, Britain is underpopulated because people feel too guilty to breed and yet, apart from a small band of Resistance, these same hyper-socially conscious people tolerate the Government's inhumane policies.

No doubt Lanchester's point is that politicians are always capable, for their own ends, of stoking fear of immigrants so that the populace will happily consent to acts of gross national self-harm in the name of keeping borders secure.

It's a very enjoyable read, but until we reach the time when Lanchester can say "I told you so" or "whoops, I was wrong", we can only partially judge this novel's worth.

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