A wall around Britain? John Lanchester on the timely coincidences in his new novel
Lanchester’s latest novel tackles a huge issue that is little covered in popular culture
John Lanchester: ‘What will happen in families, what will happen to the texture of relationships if the temperature increases by four degrees by the end of this century?’. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images)
John Lanchester didn’t plan any of this. “Not consciously, anyway,” he assures me. We’re sitting in Faber’s London offices, discussing his new novel The Wall, at a time when Trump’s White House appears hellbent on ensuring that “The Wall” is plastered across every front page and Twitter timeline in the western world.
“I didn’t know my tentative outreach to the Trump team was going to reap such prodigious rewards,” he jokes, before conceding that at least some germ of the idea may have bubbled up from those self-same origins. “I mean, it must have been there a bit,” he says, “otherwise, it’s a hell of a coincidence that I started writing it in 2016. I guess it’s a case of trend lines in the past projecting into the future.”
Lanchester’s novel posits a post-climate change England, where rising sea levels have resulted in a giant, coast-spanning wall around the entirety of Great Britain. The wall is manned by the youth of Britain, conscripts taken from every home in the nation to serve two years as their coast’s Defenders . They must patrol the huge, concrete structure and safeguard it from the many devious Others trying to get in.
While a connection to Trump’s promised fortification may be coincidence of title, the book’s themes of xenophobic panic and seaborne enemies seem acutely timely for modern Britain. We are, after all, speaking just days after UK home secretary Sajid Javid called for gunboats to protect Britain’s shores from huddled migrants in rubber dinghies.
“I was thinking particularly about unprecedented levels of population displacement,” he says, “rather than the migrant ‘crisis’” – this last word uttered with a sarcastic mien – “of the last few years.”
Migrant panic is palpable in The Wall, whose protagonist Kavanagh is a new conscript to the National Coastal Defence System. Likeable, humane and introspective, he nevertheless describes foreigners’ utter lack of humanity with a contempt that’s even more chilling for being so matter-of-fact. I ask if this slide into dehumanisation is something Lanchester sees happening right now.
Wracked with guilt and inertia, the olds simply can’t relate to the new world their children inhabit, and find themselves unable to bridge the divide
“I do think that, unfortunately, these feelings run quite deep in people,” he says. “We retreat to a place of safety and begin thinking that anyone who hasn’t got that place of safety, well, it’s somehow their own fault. I was going to say these feelings are never far below the surface and I don’t know if that’s true, but there are certainly buttons you can push to make people feel that way and insecurity, whether it’s in terms of safety or the economy, is very easy for the unscrupulous to exploit.”
No year is specified in the book, but even the most conservative estimates for climate disaster track to a terrifyingly short timeline. Current International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections state that on our current trajectory, global temperatures could, this century, exceed 4 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average. That won’t just mean balmy evenings, shorter sleeves and a boom in Irish wine-making, this would render most of the US – and pretty much everywhere on Earth south of Dover and the Great Lakes – a wasteland of desertification, extreme weather, deforestation and encroaching tides.
“The IPCC conjecture is, if we don’t change anything, this will happen by the end of the century,” he says. “When you’re feeling strong, Google a map of the world at 4 degrees warmer. It’s a thing of horror. A lot of the currently densely inhabited parts of the world – Madrid, Beijing and New York are all basically on the same latitude – would now be desert. And the massive, inescapable thing the maps don’t tell you and which politicians don’t talk about, is where do all those people go?”
Just a few minutes of research on this topic provokes the sort of cold, vertiginous horror one might get from a trip to the titular grey edifice itself. This feeling is rendered all the more terrifying by how little this outcome has been understood or reflected in the popular mind. Current science predicts that a child born today will see the majority of the United States become uninhabitable in their lifetime. I proffer that if we had such confident and detailed assurances of, say, a cataclysmic meteor impact, it would be the subject of every book, film and soap opera for decades. How then is our climate catastrophe so little covered in popular culture?
“It’s too much to bear,” Lanchester replies, before admitting he’s been similarly reluctant to grasp it himself. “I wrote one longish piece about climate change 12 years ago and haven’t since, mainly because it’s so hard to face. There’s no good news. But, clearly, I was processing it. I couldn’t bear to think about it, so I wrote this instead.”
This processing bore fruit, even if it did so subconsciously. Lanchester once wrote, in relation to a previous book, that inspiration is a hard thing to predict. “A novel,” he wrote, “begins, in my experience, with a thought or image that won’t leave me alone”. For The Wall, this turns out to have been literally true, as the story unravelled from a series of unnerving dreams. “I had started another novel and kept seeing a recurring image as I faded off to sleep,” he says. “It was a man standing on a wall, on his own, at night, facing the coast. I was thinking about who that was, what world he was living in. I realised I was thinking about the world after catastrophic climate change.”
The Wall describes the effects of this environmental collapse, subsequent population displacement and the rise of hyper-protective politics, but without any exegesis from an omniscient narrator. What we learn about this new world is through the smaller lens of Kavanagh’s ordinary life; the drudgery of work, the interpersonal relationships he forms with his fellow Defenders and in one memorable sequence, how it affects family ties.
For Kavanagh and his contemporaries, all born after “The Change”, a generational rift now separates them from their parents. “The olds feel they irretrievably f**ked up the world, then allowed us to be born into it,” says Kavanagh at one point. “You know what? It’s true.”
The young don’t just have to do two years’ national service on the cold, concrete misery of the Wall, they also live in a world without beaches, extra food or air travel, each of which is spoken of with a mixture of wistful longing and sheer disbelief. Wracked with guilt and inertia, the olds simply can’t relate to the new world their children inhabit, and find themselves unable to bridge the divide.
It’s hard to imagine an irrevocably changed world for those people who live beyond it
“It’s not only people with kids who think about these things,” Lanchester says. “But I do have children and it led me to think about the personal side of this; what will happen in families, what will happen to the texture of relationships if the temperature increases by four degrees by the end of this century? Will people just say, as it were, ‘ah well, shit happens Grandad’? I was very interested in the idea of a broken world and how it gets internalised inside families. The young saying ‘You have nothing to say to me. None of the things you know have any bearing on my reality’.”
Wouldn’t they have a right to attack us for letting it happen on our watch?
“Yes, but that’s complicated,” he cautions. “The reader is not necessarily going to agree with Kavanagh on this. I mean, it comes up a lot in family dynamics, someone can say something that’s completely true but also unfair. If you were telling the story from the parents’ point of view, perhaps they’d say, what agency did we have? Show me the lever we could have pulled.”
Lanchester’s previous writing on crises centred on the economic variety. He wrote two books about the global banking crash – 2010’s non-fiction Whoops! and his 2012 novel Capital, set against the events of the crisis and later made into a BBC drama starring Toby Jones. Given this background, has he ever tried to cost the construction of the Wall itself?
“No I haven’t,” he replies, “because I was imagining it as a war economy. The Nazis, for example, knew the atomic bomb was physically possible, so they did the maths on it. They concluded it would take the equivalent of a medium-sized country’s GDP to do it, so they didn’t.”
I naively ask how the Americans managed it.
“Well, they spent it. It’s one of those things where we can’t afford it, until there’s a war on and then, suddenly, we can.”
Recent global history and current human behaviour suggest we very well might need to some time soon. For Lanchester, the first step toward grappling with the problem is to accept that it’s there and what its ramifications could be, in all their horror and alarm. This, of course, is no easy task.
“It’s hard,” he concludes, “to imagine an irrevocably changed world for those people who live beyond it.”
The Wall is published by Faber