'The Wall' review: John Lanchester's dystopian novel is timely but bland
THE WALL, by John Lanchester. W.W. Norton & Company, 254 pp., $25.95.
What could be timelier than a novel about a country that builds a wall around itself to keep out The Others?
British novelist John Lanchester’s “The Wall” envisions a homeland determined to fend off hordes of outsiders driven to desperation by The Change, a global ecological catastrophe. Two hundred thousand citizens are ordered to serve as Defenders, armed with rifles and bayonets, circling their unnamed island nation. The stakes are high. For every Other who breaches the Wall, a Defender is “put to sea,” with little hope of survival.
The book’s protagonist, Kavanaugh, is a colorless young provincial who aspires to join the country’s elite, the few who still enjoy such perks as wine. In the meantime, he must endure a tyrannical Captain and mind-numbing 12-hour shifts on the Wall. “You learn to float,” he notes. “You become completely passive.”
Apparently, Lanchester has succumbed to passivity too. He assigns to Kavanaugh such a low-key narrative voice that the man seems little more interesting than the barren expanse he daily surveys — concrete wall, sky and sea. The author evokes boredom so well that the reader has to slap himself to avoid nodding off.
All of his characters and settings amount to no more than bland and featureless generics. The woman who becomes Kavanaugh’s lover is a faceless cipher, a character without defining characteristics. So, too, is the nation in which the story takes place. Is it a Brexit-obsessed Britain? What sort of government rules this land? How oppressive is it? To what extent is racism to blame for the ferocity of the fear of Others? What cultural factors have led to this dismal outcome? We’re not told.
A certain vagueness, Lanchester might argue, is necessary to give his novel a larger resonance, a universal meaning. His dystopia is meant as a warning to whatever nation is tempted to give in to xenophobic fervor. In order to “save” your country, you can end up destroying its most humane values.
Fair enough. But we have only to look to such classics of the genre as “1984” or “The Handmaid’s Tale” to understand why they have met the test of time and “The Wall” is unlikely to do so.
Who can forget the ever-vigilant eyes and ears of Big Brother? Who can ignore the way contemporary lies like “fake news” and “the press is the enemy of the people” echo wretched slogans like “Freedom Is Slavery” and “Ignorance Is Strength.” We can still agonize with Orwell’s Winston Smith in the torture chamber, or Atwood’s Offred during the rape ritual called the Ceremony at the hands of The Commander. Rarely has authoritarian obliteration of humanity been portrayed so vividly.
Halfway through “The Wall,” Lanchester ups the narrative ante with a successful enemy attack. As a result, Kavanaugh, his lover and a few others, including the Captain (who has been revealed as a former Other himself), are put to sea in a lifeboat. They have all become Others, and their perils have only begun. When they encounter a flotilla of these unlucky migrants sheltering near an island, they are denounced. “You push children off a life raft,” says their leader, “and wish to feel good about yourselves for doing it.”
If only the author were more committed to creating vibrant characters than scolding his readers. And we know he can do that.
The author’s previous fiction contains multitudes — the sly moral monster at the heart of “The Debt to Pleasure,” the lonely accountant of “Mr. Phillips,” 50 years of Hong Kong in “Fragrant Harbor,” and bewildered Londoners during the recent recession in “Capital.” Clearly, Lanchester will be back.