One of the things Lanchester is brilliant at, both in novels such as Capital (2012) and especially in his journalism and nonfiction, is simply explaining stuff. He is adept at breaking down complex concepts into accessible language peppered with handy little reminders – like a leather-jacketed professor taking a seminar in the pub... So why, then, is The Wall a little unsatisfying? One problem is that it’s not nearly strange enough – the ambient unease rarely trickles down to a human level... We’re rather blessed at this moment with prophets of dystopia: George Saunders, Margaret Atwood, Charlie Brooker, Naomi Alderman, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. The Wall feels a bit basic by comparison.
It is very good: a well-structured, well-paced story with a narrative drive that keeps you going through the monotony of life on the Wall. It does, though, fall a concrete slab or two short in terms of its ambition, both intellectually and imaginatively.
It doesn't stretch or challenge the reader or use the future as a device to introduce any alarmingly new social concepts (beyond the idea of the devastating effects of global warming, evidence of which is already just a Google click away).
In fact, I suspect if John Lanchester were to use his learned, measured, insightful mind to produce a non-fiction book about climate change, it would be a far more distressing peek into the future than his latest novel.
Lanchester’s talents as a novelist – his judicious blending of realism and metaphor, his remarkable ability to render tedium gripping, and his mastery of narrative tension – have been put to estimable use. The result is a novel that ranks alongside Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and the oeuvre of Kim Stanley Robinson as a fictional meditation on what climate change may mean for the planet. Even if its value as a work of prophecy is as yet unknowable, it will certainly provide future generations with a mirror held up to the anxieties and forebodings of the early 21st century.
So, discuss: Brexit isolationist parable? Trump-era migration satire? Dire climate-change pronouncement? Military-flavoured Godot? Whatever your read on The Wall’s initial chapters, this part of the novel is visibly tuned to invite allegorical speculation. So it is at least surprising when Lanchester hits the midpoint and turns it into an old-school young-adult adventure story, whisking Kavanagh and the reader away from Fortress Britain before any of the metaphorical blows can really land... leaving the whole affair as a serviceable but slightly baffling experiment, never much more than the sum of vaguely familiar parts
No doubt Lanchester’s point is that politicians are always capable, for their own ends, of stoking fear of immigrants to such a degree 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.
The Wall is a cracking adventure and an astute political fable... The writing is spare, but so are the characterisations, even Kavanagh’s... He is a versatile writer... The transparency of the book’s themes and style suggests that it is quite possible that he has deliberately chosen in The Wall to write a young adult novel rather than a complex literary fiction. This, anyway, is what he has done, and it is a very good one. Every secondary school library in the country needs to order a copy.
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... 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.
Even so, Lanchester’s fictional world is intelligently conceived and dourly impressive. There is the fear and mind-bending boredom of the long shifts (“Always water, sky, wind, cold, and of course concrete”) in which eating a “power bar” counts as a significant event.
Lanchester’s description of what it is like to be in a military unit feels well thought out and convincing. The action scenes, when they come, ring true in a downbeat fashion, as does the resentment of the younger generation towards their parents, on whose watch the Change took place.
The Wall certainly sticks in the mind: it is a resonant addition, from out of left field, to the growing body of Brexit literature.
As the novel segues into a survivalist sea story that never quite lives up to the promise of the first two-thirds, it hits you that Lanchester has more or less inverted the premise of last year’s Booker-shortlisted Exit West, Mohsin Hamid’s speculative fantasy about borderless migration, in which black portals mysteriously open up around the globe. The Wall is the bleaker book, yet it’s infinitely less solemn, in part because of its chatty, pithy voice, recognisable from Lanchester’s journalism. ‘When bullets come close, the noise they make as they go past changes from a zing to a crack,’ Kavanagh says, sounding very like his author. While Lanchester’s familiar, informative tone didn’t always meet the demands of Capital, a multi-character ensemble piece, it’s an asset here, in part precisely because it’s comically at odds with what’s being described. But look again at the paragraph quoted above: to whom exactly is Kavanagh explaining how his world works? It’s a question that recurs as the novel progresses. Lanchester provides a solution, folded into an elegant sign-off, but it feels a bit of a cop-out in view of the grim future he’s outlined. Then again, if The Wall is even half right, maybe artistic quandaries are going to be the only type we can reasonably expect novelists to solve.
January is obviously far too early to call a book of the year but, come December 2019, I reckon I'll still be raving about this one. Set in the very near future it is narrated by a young man named Kavanaugh and begins just as he is starting a two year stretch patrolling the Wall, a 10,000km structure which "protects" the UK against Others. The best thing that can happen to Kavanaugh is that he does his stint, survives and then gets off the Wall and never has to go back.