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John Lanchester’s “The Wall”: climate change, building walls, and the world’s future

Someone holding John Lanchester’s novel The Wall above a cityscape.

John Lanchester is most famously known for his fictional works relating to finance and money in the contemporary world. His novel, Capital, which was published in 2012 brought into question the housing crisis related to the 2007-9 crash. Yet his latest novel, The Wall, goes in a very different direction.

To be honest, when I first started to read The Wall, I was not convinced. The writing seemed unexciting. I was frustrated by the descriptions of the cold, which go on for several pages, and I wondered if this novel was more for Y.A.? However, the novel picks up and we go on a journey with the young Kavanagh, a man who has started his two-year stint serving England’s border wall. Since the irreparable change in our climate, the countries that survived have built walls to keep not only the rising floodwaters out, but also the refugees, or the Others as they are called in the book.

The wall is 10,000 km long and 3 m wide. There are watch towers every 3 km which means roughly 3,000 towers. If the Others are able to attack and effectively make it over the wall, the defenders are sent to sea in their place. It is a harsh reality, one built out of fear and ignorance. Kavanagh, like many other people his age, does not know anything about the world outside of England. He does not know where the Others come from, or what it is like beyond the wall that protects his country.

The event that transformed the world is known as the Change, and Kavanagh blames his parents and their generation for not doing something to stop it. This frustration has caused a disconnect between the generations.

“It’s guilt: mass guilt, generational guilt. The olds feel they irretrievably fucked up the world, then allowed us to be born in it. You know what? It’s true. That’s exactly what they did. They know it, we know it. Everybody knows it” (55).

The language of Lanchester’s novel echoes the likes of Edward Said’s Orientalism, where he talks about the notion of the ‘other’. The other being someone different and separate from the social norm. They might look, speak, act, or eat differently to the agreed-upon rules of the majority society. They are used as a reference point: I am not them because they are not me. We see everything we are not in them. This is the same for the defenders and the Others.

Before strict regulations, Others that made it over the wall could be integrated into society. The captain of Kavanagh’s group was an Other. Even though he has fully integrated and even defends the wall from more Others coming over, he is still somehow marked by his past. Probably out of resentment from this, it is no wonder that he eventually betrays his fellow defenders in a plot to let a large number of Others over the wall.

When Kavanagh finds himself and some of his fellow defenders sent to sea, on the wrong side of the wall his world changes. He becomes an Other and he grapples with what that means for him. “Maybe there isn’t a real self, just different versions of us we wear in different settings and with different people” (78).

He fights pirates, befriends Others, and loses some ex-Defender friends along the way. The world beyond the wall is a little bit like the 1995 film Water World. I am still unsure how I feel about that. He can never go home, not really. He can only return as an Other. If he were to successfully make it over the wall he could either be euthanised, sent back over the wall, or enslaved’ as Help.

I missed Lanchester’s usually crisp and witty proses in this novel, and I wonder if this is because of the new style he is trying out in The Wall. What the novel lacks in writing style, it does bring up very important questions about immigration, our climate in crisis, and how we are (not) handling these things. He brings up complex topics like othering in an extremely accessible way. It is a great book to share with your family or teenagers as I think it can bring about some positive discussions about our current state of affairs.

What dystopian novels have you been reading lately? Do you think that John Lanchester’s “The Wall” will be something you pick up for your next book club? Let me know what you think in the comments. As always, share the reading love.