John Lanchester’s, The Wall is a slow burner of a novel that gradually catches up with you to live beyond the immediate reading experience. Its apparent simplicity belies a number of thought-provoking themes and sub-themes.
It’s an allegorical novel set in a dystopian future where ‘defenders’ guard a wall to keep out the ‘others’. The mention of ‘the others’ conjured up Jin-Soo Kwon, one of the Korean character’s in the TV series Lost, where the same term was used. There were quite a few moments in the novel that reminded me of other works of fiction, but I quite like that kind of artistic referencing, deliberate or coincidental.
Most of the details about Britain’s future society, the nitty-gritty details that occurred after the ‘change’, are kept deliberately hazy. From the few clues that can be gleaned, society has become more divided (the better off use domestic ‘helpers’) and the ‘elite’ have become savvy at evading conscription on the wall. This fictional world is a masterclass in the creation of mystery by omitting information.
The first third of the novel poses numerous questions about the world we’re in. At times some of the information appears contradictory. There’s a mention of people eating a lot more root vegetables than before, but pubs are still open, and they have biscuits with their tea. The world is both familiar and strange, but its strangeness isn’t fully explored. When people form couples (to reproduce) they enjoy favourable lifestyles as ‘breeders’. There’s an echo of The Handmaid’s Tale here, although low fertility is a common trope that’s used in science fiction, especially its sub-genres of post-apocalyptic fiction and the eco-dystopia.
This non-specific twilight world with its hazy, allegorical simplification, and heavy symbolism, evokes an almost Old Testament feel. Is science fiction the modern allegory? An allegory of this kind exists in a twilight world, a kind of dusky, foggy dreamscape. Its unreality is reminiscent of a Balthus or Giorgio de Chirico painting. It’s like our world, but not quite. It reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s, Fear and Desire (1953) which takes place in another non-specific world. It evoked old episodes of the Twilight Zone which also existed in vaguely defined alternate realities.
The unreality has a kind of timelessness. Tom Holland noted that the novel could have been set in Roman Britain on Hadrian’s wall. Is John Lanchester saying that nothing’s really changed since Roman Britain? People are still divided by walls and by having identities imposed on them.
Walls are political. They’re about membership, ownership — belonging, and exclusion. The wall has obvious contemporary connotations to Trump’s wall on the US Mexican border to, as he put it, keep out ‘criminals’ and ‘rapists’. Economic migrants tend to be looking for work. They’re more likely to end up being fruit pickers and domestic ‘helpers’. While being promoted as a functional object to keep out the unwanted, Trump’s wall is really a symbolic object, a political statement that aspires to redefine ‘America’ and its self-image — to reassure the people within it.
The action sequences are handled well with a slow building tension that becomes palpable. The logical matter-of-fact language (which includes the protagonist’s thought processes) does a great job of detailing events, motivations and reasoning effectively. During these moments, the ratio between the description, between the number of words being used and the amount of time passing swings towards language. This has the effect of slowing down time, which gives the writer time to explore the protagonists disorientation. At other times, the protagonist’s reflective observations possess the self-insight of someone much older than his years might otherwise suggest. His loathing for his parents and what their generation have done to the environment also comes across too much like a dramatic device. Wouldn’t the resentment build up and occur over more than a single teenage generation?
The novel really gets going when a twist is introduced. I would have described it by using another word but I think that might give away too much about the plot, so I’ll just leave it at that. The end is, in some ways, a tad disappointing, although in other respects it fits in with the tone of the story.
The Wall has been criticised for not being as grand or exciting as The Handmaid’s Tale. I think that’s a bit unfair. The Wall is working a slightly different angle, doing its own distinct thing. On another different but related point, there’s a snobbery against stories being set in England. They’re perceived as being less ‘glamorous’ and ‘exciting’ as ones set in North America and being too mundane in comparison to more colourful global locations. There’s a kind of, at best, embarrassment and, at worst, a self-loathing about telling stories about Britain and Britishness, as if they’re somehow inadequate by comparison. Sometimes there’s an underlying feeling that Britain is more comfortable with its period dramas than in speculating about the future.
Tom Holland commented that the story feels derivative. Yes and no. The post-apocalyptic, eco-disaster, and shock dystopian future stories are sub-genres of science fiction. This is exactly the kind of subject that they’re supposed to be dealing with — walls, rising sea levels (post-nuclear landscapes, underground bunkers, robots, AI, medicated societies, police states, etc) — they’re the tropes of these sub-genres. In the same way, crime genre novels often begin with the discovery of a dead body. Crime genre stories are dead body stories, that’s what they are about.
Another key point about this novel is that it’s a science fiction genre story that’s been written as literary fiction. This defines how John Lanchester tells the story — the importance of tone over action, the restraint of his prose style, and the overarching subtlety of his narrative.