Talk about timely. British author John Lanchester (“The Debt to Pleasure,” “Capital”) has published a novel about a Wall — always with a capital “W” — after border-wall debates prompted a monthlong partial government shutdown in the U.S., and as xenophobic paranoia about sovereignty issues triggers ongoing bureaucratic/diplomatic/economic bedlam of Brexit in Britain.
Lanchester’s tale is about an island nation that has built “a long low concrete monster” along its entire 10,000-kilometer coastline. A premise like that must tap directly into international anxieties brought on by 21st-century population displacement, mustn’t it?
Well, yes and no.
“The Wall,” in its way, is impeccably crafted. Its prose is spare. Its plot is unadorned. Its dystopian atmospheric touches are effective. It moves along at a good pace, and its set pieces — nighttime battles, uneasy encounters between active military personnel and ordinary citizens — feel movie-script ready.
At the same time, the book is too abstract to deliver the full-fledged cautionary nightmare Lanchester seems to have intended. It steers clear of specifics about how its global disaster unfolded. Its drama is entirely situational, with few of the psychological twists that made Lanchester’s debut novel, “The Debt to Pleasure,” such a comical macabre delight. Compared to the panoramic splendor of his recent masterpiece, “Capital” — which did for post-fiscal-crisis London what Tom Wolfe did for 1980s New York in “The Bonfire of the Vanities” — “The Wall” feels like thin stuff. Readable stuff, even page-turning stuff — but not fully satisfying.
Lanchester’s narrator Joseph Kavanagh is a recently conscripted “Defender” posted to guard a section of the “National Coastal Defense Structure” known as “Ilfracombe 4” (a look at a map of the U.K. indicates that’s Cornwall). Here Kavanagh helps prevent “Others” from entering one of the last functioning nations on Earth. The Others are part of a global refugee crisis resulting from “the Change” which has led to “crops failing or countries breaking down.” It also has led to a drastic sea-level rise (“there isn’t a single beach left, anywhere in the world”). Most of all it has created bitter intergenerational hostility.
The older generation, Kavanaugh explains, feel they’ve messed things up “irretrievably.” The younger generation sees it that way too — and their resentment, paradoxically, has led to a depopulation crisis.
“We broke the world,” Kavanagh explains, “and have no right to keep populating it.”
The one escape for those stuck with two years of Wall duty, however, is to declare themselves “Breeders” to supply the Wall with future Defenders. And the Wall goes through Defenders quickly, thanks to a punitive policy that comes into play whenever any Others succeed in breaching it: For every Other who enters the country, an equal number of Defenders are expelled.
One final twist: A subversive segment of the population thinks it’s wrong to deny Others entry into the country and is actively scheming to help them sneak in, even going so far as to implant fake-ID computer chips that will let them pass for natives. Kavanagh hints early on that his charismatic Captain, a former Other himself, may be one of those covert sympathizers.
“The Wall” succeeds as a novel about military camaraderie and the pain of betrayal when it occurs. It vividly evokes the all-in-the-same-boat spirit that develops when young men and women are stuck in the middle of nowhere with tedium as big a problem as an invisible threat.
“You do have the constant prospect of action,” Kavanagh says, “the constant risk of sudden and total disaster — but that’s not the same as stuff actually happening.”
Where the novel falls short is in its lack of specifics about the larger world these Defenders inhabit. Lanchester’s most ambitious novels, “Capital” and “Fragrant Harbor,” offered indelible, detail-rich portraits of London and Hong Kong, respectively, making you feel privy to the secret twisted histories of those cities.
“The Wall,” by contrast, feels more conceptual than observational. It has action. It has surprises. But it doesn’t dive as fully into its speculative world as one might wish.
“The Wall” by John Lanchester, Norton, 254 pp., $25.95