The Wall!

October 9, 2019 at 2:10 pm | Posted in Climate Change, violence, | 3 Comments
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Here’s a review that appeared in the October issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the US. Given the Climate Emergency, and the Narcissist-in-Chief’s obsession with walls, Lanchester’s book is all too pertinent.

The Wall. By John Lanchester. W.W. Norton and Co. 2019. 254 pp.

In his splendid book on the cultural causes of the climate emergency, The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh begins by highlighting modern fiction’s fixation on “individual moral adventure”—the story of the hero—and the expulsion of the collective from the literary imagination.

In recent years, however, a new genre of fiction has emerged that leaves this fixation behind. Called “cli-fi”—a variation on “sci-fi” —this new genre highlights the effects of climate catastrophes on precisely those collectives Ghosh sees as previously neglected. One outstanding instance of “cli-fi” is Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2014 novel New York 2140, which explores the dire implications of the flooding of Manhattan (though the date he uses is a bit optimistic!)

Now the widely-read British writer, John Lanchester, has published his own first dive into the cli-fi genre, The Wall. In this novel, Lanchester moves beyond Robinson’s engagement with the immediate effects of sea-level rise to the long-term effects of what he calls The Change—a massive catastrophe that has transformed society. The story unfolds on an island—presumably Britain, but never identified as such. The island has been spared the worst effects of the Change and has constructed a wall around itself to keep out rising waters and migrants —the Others—who are trying to escape the dreadful situations in their own countries.

The story focuses on the experience of “Joseph Kavanaugh,” who is, like all citizens of the island, required to serve for two years as a Defender of the Wall against the threat of armed invasion. Kavanaugh resembles some of our own young people, blaming older people for the situation he and others his age find themselves in. “The world hasn’t always been like this and…the people responsible for it ending up like this were our parents…them and their generation,” he states.

Kavanaugh eventually partners up with a female Defender to become Breeders—people willing to have children when the population is in serious decline due to the reluctance on the part of many to reproduce because of the Change. Ostensibly, they were to be discharged from the Defenders for doing so. Before this happens, however, a personal catastrophe befalls them that pitches them onto the other side of the Wall and makes them consider Others in a different way.

Gruesome as the narrative may sound, the book is a terrific read, especially the last hundred pages. I could hardly put it down. It was nominated for the 2019 Mann Booker Prize in 2019 though didn’t make it to the final round. As the young people around the world are taking to the streets to protest capitalist greed in the face of climate catastrophe, Lanchester’s The Wall is just what the apathetic older generation needs to read.

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