It’s an understatement to say that the past decades of liberalization and globalization are receiving today strong push back from major conservative fronts in the Western World. A large portion of Americans would like to build a wall separating them from Mexico. Animosity against Otherness is open and aggressive, and in some cases, even supported by large organizations. Strong nationalist movements are springing up (and re-springing up) in many European and American countries. And the world’s greatest social and political experiment (aka the European Union) has taken its biggest blow: the UK voting to exit. Extrapolating upon these ideas in often successful and occasionally pretentious fashion is John Lanchester’s The Wall (2019).
A British novel that feels very British, The Wall tells of a young man conscripted to join the ranks of thousands of people who, for a mandatory two year stint, man the Wall. A concrete structure extending around the perimeter of the British Isles, Kavanagh stands guard every day, watching for invaders, and safe guarding a regimented regime. The story starting in classic, new-soldier fashion (meet the fellow cadets, form relationships, deal with the tough captain, get tested, etc.), Kavanaugh’s tale eventually takes a hard left turn, one that sends everything into the wildly unknown, and a turn on which Lanchester’s underlying political statement, rests.
The pieces distinct in their stance, The Wall is clearly a political novel commenting on the state of the world today. (Funny that Lanchester had enough time after the Brexit vote to write a novel and publish it, and still Brexit hasn’t happened.) Lanchester wisely avoids playing the pity card, i.e. characterizing the invaders as poor immigrants just looking for a bite to eat, and the native Brits as blood thirsty, (unintending) totalitarians. Instead, the whole world is portrayed as broken down and in disarray, the Wall just one component. Dog eat dog, Britons’ choice to build a wall is one of the contributing factors to the wider breakdown of society.
Where real world data points to the fact that the majority of the socio-political drama in the world today is the result of Westerners with limited education and little contact with people foreign to their local culture are the root cause of the fear, Lanchester sticks problems , something which Lanchester, rather unconvincingly portrays as rabid guilt among the older generation of Brits. Kavanaugh’s parents, for example, are portrayed as hollow and minimally communicative as they try to work through the guilt of having voted away their connection to the greater world.
In the end, The Wall is a novel angry about Brexit, as well as the real and proverbial walls that separate people and cultures rather than give them a chance to harmonize. Feeling like a Christopher Priest or Brian Aldiss offering, it extrapolates well, has its metaphors in proper place, but does make a bold assumption that the next generation would regret the decisions leading to such extreme measures—clearly pointing a figure at the British demographic who voted for Brexit. I doubt the people would point the finger at themselves when such a complex situation would have many other places to point fingers. For me, the novel should have been more abstract—nameless country, nameless character, nameless, etc. This would have made the novel more universal, not to mention left it less open to criticism about the realities its tying to parallel.