John Lanchester’s The Wall is a dystopian vision of post-climate-collapse Britain. As the seas have risen, all the world’s beaches and low-lying communities have been submerged, and vast displaced populations are cast adrift on the oceans in a perilous search of safe harbour. In common with other still-habitable territories, Britain’s rocky coast is topped by a forbidding concrete wall, which is under constant danger of being breached by desperate armed immigrants.

The narrator Joseph Kavanagh is among the latest batch of young recruits forced into a two-year stint as Defenders on the Wall, protecting day and night against invasion from the ‘Others’. The stakes are high, as for every immigrant that breaches the Wall, one Defender or Guard officer is de-microchipped and sent to sea, becoming a non-citizen. Kavanagh and the other Defenders are under the command of the stern and capable Captain; a natural leader who, as part of a wave of immigrants from before the climate catastrophe hit, harbours a personal agenda at odds with his position of duty and privilege. It’s a terrifying portrayal of a future world that resonates all too closely with the political present but, as Kavanagh is drawn into a relationship with a fellow Defender called Hifa – who when they first meet is so swaddled in cold-weather clothes for the night shift, he’s not even sure of her gender – it also embraces small triumphs of hope, camaraderie, heroism and resilience.

MR: It’s seven years since Capital was published. When did you begin The Wall, and how fast was the writing process?

JL: I had another novel in mind, which I was going to write straight after Capital, but then I was getting so many requests to do economic things, and I wrote How To Speak Money, so I got sidetracked by that. The novel I was working on was going to be a long, multi-character thing, and I kept being bothered by the idea of The Wall. So I thought, I know what, I’ll just start it, rather than get in the state of the grass is greener, and I worked on both of them for a little bit. Then in mid-2016, when I realised The Wall was going to be shorter and therefore easier to finish in a timely way, I stopped writing the other book and concentrated full-time on The Wall and wrote it in about 18 months.

What did you set out to add to the discussion and debate about climate change and the immigration crisis?

I didn’t set out to add anything to the debate, really. It came out of a sort of dream about someone standing on a wall on the coast, on his own and in the dark. I had this recurring sequence of images that I kept thinking about at night as I was falling asleep, and I wanted to know more about the character and his world. In terms of my conscious mind, that was what I was thinking about. Now there’s obviously a ton of things underneath it, I stay on top of the climate forecasts when I can bear to, so there’s obviously a lot of stuff lurking in me I’m unconscious about; where we are, where we’re headed. But I found that once I’d imagined the scene and realised it was set in a future world, that the things I was mainly thinking about were trying to unpack the details of what it would be like, trying to imagine myself into that world.

There’s a map of the world 4 degrees warmer, and it is a thing of horror, huge sections of the planet uninhabitable, much higher sea levels, crop failures, colossal displacement of populations…”

In the book, rising seas have eliminated all the world’s beaches and coastal communities, and Britain has erected a 5-metre-high concrete barrier to keep the sea and a tide of desperate immigrants at bay. How soon would we reach that level of catastrophe according to current forecasts?

I’m deliberately vague about the timeline in the book. According to the IPCC, the trajectory we’re currently on is 3.5 to 5 degrees of warming by the end of the century – that’s if nothing changes. There’s a map of the world 4 degrees warmer, and it is a thing of horror, because huge sections of the planet are uninhabitable. That’s what it boils down to, and that implies much higher sea levels, crop failures, colossal displacement of populations; the world of the book, effectively.

So it’s not necessarily doom and gloom for the next generation, but the one after that could have no hope.

Yeah, but it could be even quicker because of the feedback effects, especially with the release of methane, a really potent chemical that is currently locked up in cold areas in the permafrost.

And yet each time the international community sets a carbon reduction target, we sail past it. How can we stop that cycle of failure?

It’s clearly a knife-edge moment now. We could act decisively to try and aim for the so-called ‘safe’ target of 1.5 degree warming. But even then, the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees, which was the previous best case, ‘let’s try for that’ scenario, is hundreds of millions of lives being dramatically and irrevocably impacted, if not lost. Just that half a degree. So we could do that, and I think the good news is that most of the world’s governments get it, and have agreed a package of actions and rules. And another positive is that you don’t often meet a young climate denier. The young understand it, and they also understand it as an emergency. So there are some grounds for optimism.

You depict a sense of intergenerational guilt and blame in Kavanagh’s edgy relationship with his parents…

I’m interested in how it’s going to seem to people looking back at us, particularly now that we’ve been told it’s our last chance. It’s not only people who have kids who think about this, obviously, but because I have kids I was interested in that blame and shame being personalised. It’s not only a general thing about your ancestors having done these terrible things, it’s directly familial. I wanted to dramatise it in terms of a broken world in which one of the things that’s broken is relationships inside the family. Kavanagh very directly and very personally blames his parents, or at least feels they have nothing in common with each other. I don’t think the reader will necessarily think that’s fair or reasonable, but it’s completely how he feels.

I’ve never written a novel where it felt like there was another way of doing it, because for me the way the story is told is determined by who’s telling it, and that in turn is shaped by the world in the story itself, so it’s a kind of package.”

In Capital you used an omniscient third-person narrator. Why was it important to tell this story directly from one young man’s perspective? And why Kavanagh in particular?

Because the germ of it was the idea of this one figure, and it just felt like the right way to lead the reader through it. I’ve never written a novel where it felt like there was another way of doing it, because for me the way the story is told is determined by who’s telling it, and that in turn is shaped by the world in the story itself, so it’s a kind of package. I never thought about having a different toolkit for the book. Similarly for Capital I wanted to write a novel with an omniscient, almost 19th-century narrator, and that was very much the starting point.

It would of course be a completely different novel if it were told, say, from the point of view of a member of the ‘elite’? Did you ever consider the story from that viewpoint, because through Kavanagh’s eyes you can’t really grasp what they’re up to.

I didn’t really, no. But an alternative viewpoint I was very conscious of is that in one sense the Captain’s a hero of the story, and that told from his point of view it’s about trying to subvert and undermine a totalitarian state that’s killing people all the time, and being loyal to your own ideas, who you are and where you’re from. He’s from sub-Saharan Africa, but he got here when he was still allowed to become a citizen, which you now can’t because conditions have got stretched even tighter. So I was imagining a parallel narrative in which the Captain is the hero, which is exactly the opposite of how he seems to Kavanagh. He is brave and he’s a natural leader, and he’s the only person in the book that really has a moral compass that isn’t just set by the society around him, while also being the source of ruin from Kavanagh’s point of view. I didn’t think about the top-down thing, though it’s quite interesting to think about in retrospect.

There are some hints in Kavanagh’s narrative of his understanding of how the rest of society works, but we’re mostly left to imagine those other strata and how they function. Beyond the vast military operation on the Wall there’s relentless scarcity and austerity, and yet there are still civilians on a daily commute. To what extent is ‘business as usual’ possible in this world?

When I was writing the book I was trying to imagine inhabiting this altered world, and trying to think, at the simplest level, what would it be like? And if you look at that 4-degree-warmer map, the thing it left me thinking, was, that’s a world war. That’s the scale of it, that’s the impact of it, and it’s an impact on absolutely everything. It’s global, environmental, economic, it effects the fundamental construction of society, it affects how people feel when they internalise it. And yet at the same time, during the war people did go to their office jobs and pay their electricity bills, they had a daily commute and they had their lives and relationships and so on. The world’s turned upside down, everything is altered, and yet that kind of daily life is still there.

It feels very much like Britain has been knocked back in to the 1940s or ’50s…

Yes, the war and maybe post-war world was what I had in mind as a rough analogy for what you’d have; a kind of straitened existence where there is one dominant fact of life.

I didn’t think I was doing something particularly different with this novel. But then I suppose that often happens. Because it’s been in your head for a couple of years, you get completely used to it.”

It’s quite Orwellian in that regard. There are also echoes of Robinson Crusoe, Swift, Robert Louis Stevenson, J.G. Ballard., Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Were any particular literary influences at play? Are there books you read or re-read to help capture the mood?

No there weren’t, and there never are because if you do re-read things it gets too much in your head. I didn’t have a conscious literary world, although those are all books and authors that I’ve read and admired, and it’s hard ultimately to know what you’re influenced and shaped by in terms of your reading. I don’t like the modern urge to over-segregate writers in terms of who writes what. I’ve always liked all sorts of speculative fiction, fiction set in other worlds, and maybe that’s part of it. I didn’t think I was doing something particularly different with this novel. But then I suppose that often happens. Because it’s been in your head for a couple of years, you get completely used to it.

I’ve been re-reading Orwell, in fact, literally just at the weekend, I hadn’t read 1984 for years. What struck me was the emotional claustrophobia of it, it’s so fully internalised, there’s a kind of squeezedness, and that feels very much as if it comes out of the war.

I think there’s a more generous humanity in your book, the relationships Kavanagh is able to forge are positive…

Well he’s a younger man, and the world seems normal to him, whereas 1984 is very much about someone realising that the world isn’t normal. Winston Smith’s trajectory is kind of a dark version of an awakening, whereas for Kavanagh, because they’re in the middle of it, it’s normal to him, so in a way his horizontal relationships are normal, even though relationships are broken in his family.

Kavanagh and his companions face brutal face-to-face combat and unrestrained violence but there is also camaraderie and resilience and a sense of community in the face of hardship.

To come back to the war point, you do get that; people find out all sorts of positive things about themselves and the people around them. Kavanagh doesn’t see the society around him differently until catastrophic things happen to him; he doesn’t have an ethical awakening in and of himself, it’s done to him.

The structure is episodic, and the lasting impression is of a series of flashpoints and key events, and also the nature and power of shared memory and storytelling to hold our lives and relationships together.

I didn’t think of it as being episodic, but their term on the wall is basically a form of national service, and the thing everyone says about it is that the only thing that’s worse than the horrifying monotony of a typical day is that something might happen, and you don’t know whether to be terrified that something’s going to happen, or desperate for it. Because it’s the worst thing in the world and yet your life is already the worst thing in the world. I wanted to catch that balance, that there’s no alternative really between the gruelling monotony and the days ticking down, and terrifying, abrupt discontinuous action.

In the Faroes unfledged gannet chicks are a speciality, which have that super turbo-charged wild bird and super turbo-charged oily fish combination. It didn’t make me think, ooh yum, I want to try that.”

The food scenes stick in the mind – from craving and savouring a power bar and a hot coffee during a 12-hour night shift on the Wall, to the capture, killing and distinctive taste of seagull. There’s also this generation’s wonder at the fact that non-seasonal foods were once available year-round. What’s your stance on basing a diet on local, seasonal, more sustainable produce?

I’m all for it. Like everyone else I’ve done the veg box thing, and like everyone else the thing that does you in is the three or four months of root veg. I’ve got to the stage in terms if of cooking – which is the exact opposite that I used to think – that the only interesting thing to cook is vegetables. Any fool can make meat interesting, because we’re hardwired to like a charred on the outside, soft in the middle piece of protein. We are genuinely hardwired to like that, whereas you give someone that veg box in February and try and make eight people of whom three are teenagers sitting round a table say, “Oh my God, this is delicious.” That’s properly difficult, you really have to be able to cook to do that. So I have got interested, from a personal, practical point of view, in that challenge.

Did you research any seagull recipes?

No, and I’ve never eaten seagull, but I went to Iceland when I was researching my book about the credit crunch, where they eat smoked puffin, which has a little bit of that weird half-fish, half-duck thing, ameliorated by the smoking. In the Faroes, where they eat all kinds of seabirds, unfledged gannet chicks are a speciality, which have that super turbo-charged wild bird and super turbo-charged oily fish combination. It didn’t make me think, ooh yum, I want to try that.

Toby Jones as Roger in the 2015 BBC adaptation of Capital © BBC/Kudos/Hal Shinnie

Is there any significance to the name Hifa, or did you just want to pick something with no immediate gender or cultural connotations that would confuse Kavanagh for a bit?

No, I wanted a kind of neutral name, and Kavanagh’s name is quite specifically Irish. I’m half-Irish on my mother’s side, and I wanted to make the point that lots of the people here, who don’t think of themselves as other were once perceived as other, and I wanted a slight note of that about Hifa too, without spelling it out.

Capital went on to become a well-received TV mini-series. Has there been any early interest in filming The Wall? And what kind of production do you imagine it could be?

There has, and I don’t know the answer to the second part of that, because one thing I learnt from Capital is the limits of my own understanding of visual storytelling. It’s so different, and they see such different things. We have been talking, but I don’t yet know where that’ll go and who it will end up with. But I also learnt from Capital that there’s a difference between things you can imagine being done and things you can’t. Capital was the first book I’ve written that I could actually conceive someone turning into another medium, and I can imagine that of this too.

The other medium I imagined this in as I was reading was as a graphic novel, thinking about how the scenes would play out frame by frame with minimal dialogue.

Brilliant idea, it hadn’t occurred to me. Faber did this book called Alone, about a man on his own in a lighthouse, and it’s very striking. My editor Angus sent it to me after we finished working on The Wall, and there are some parallels. I love graphic novels, I think they’re a really interesting medium, and they’re going through an interesting moment as well, in that they’re expanding the range of things they take on, there’s a fascinating mélange of imaginative and reporting stuff going on.

So by extension, an animated film might be a good fit.

Yeah, I’ll pass it on.

What are you writing next?

I’m working on some short stories, with a theme of uncanniness. When I was a young man I used to fantasise that I’d wake up in the morning and find I had written a book – which I can exclusively reveal doesn’t work. But I’m slightly hoping with this that the stories will keep flowing until I’ve got a book. That’s my plan.

And are you planning to go back to the novel you abandoned?

I am a bit concerned that I haven’t looked back at it since I made the decision to commit, that The Wall might have inadvertently strangled it in its cradle. Because things do go dead on you. I had a moment with Capital when I finished a draft and then went off and wrote Whoops!, using all the stuff about the credit crunch I’d gathered that didn’t fit the novel. I thought I’d just do it for three months and then go back and finish the novel, and of course it took a year, the publishing process was very engaging and involving and distracting, and when I went back to finish Capital I had a moment of complete panic because I felt completely disconnected from it, it was like someone else’s book. I’d left it too long, and I had a moment when I thought actually I can’t finish it, it’s not my book. But I found that the solution to that was to just get started, that thinking about it wouldn’t solve it but actually sitting down and working on it unlocked it, so I’m braced for that moment of “Oh fuck, it’s not my book”, but it’s my hope that if I actually start working it will unlock.

 

John Lanchester was born in Hamburg in 1962. He has worked as a football reporter, obituary writer, book editor, restaurant critic and deputy editor of the London Review of Books, where he is a contributing editor. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker. He has written four previous novels, The Debt to Pleasure, Mr Phillips, Fragrant Harbour and Capital; Family Romance, a memoir; and Whoops! and How To Speak Money, about the global financial crisis. His books have won the Hawthornden Prize, the Whitbread First Novel award, the E.M. Forster Award, and the Premi Llibreter, been longlisted for the Booker Prize, and translated into twenty-five languages. He lives in London. The Wall is published in hardback and eBook by Faber & Faber.
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Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.
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