What a story is

1849 print by William Miller, after Francis Danby, ‘Sunset at Sea, after a Storm’ (1824)

The Wall
by John Lanchester,
Faber & Faber 2019

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

No, The Wall doesn’t actually begin like this, but the hackneyed and often parodied opening is close. Imagine, if you will, an unsettling meld of Kafka’s The Trial, Barrie’s Peter Pan, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and current world politics, all nested uncomfortably together in a cli-fi dystopia, and then you may start to have an inkling of the nature of Lanchester’s novel.

And unsettling and uncomfortable it certainly is. We are in some future Britain following an indefinable (and ongoing) climatic disaster called the Change, when the island has been surrounded by a concrete structure to keep out rising sea levels and what are loosely termed the Others. Joseph K’s parents are of a generation who remember a time before the Change and the Wall; Kavanagh himself feels alienated from them and their nostalgia for a life he never knew, yet only has vague dreams of becoming one of the elite who are able to fly around the world.

First of all though he has to do a tour of duty on the Wall, to help defend the country from the Others determined to escape from intolerable conditions elsewhere. But how would he feel if he were to be in the position of one of the Others, how would he behave, how would he react?

There is no doubt about it, this is a bleak novel. Kavanagh has no knowledge, no curiosity about how life could be different if he wasn’t a citizen, microchipped to establish his legal identity, potentially served by largely anonymous individuals termed Help; saved from the consequences of the Change by a faceless totalitarian state, its apparent benign nature is only exposed whenever every able young citizen has to serve two years as a Defender on the Wall. This is when our narrator starts to realise what a brutal regime is in store for him, one in which the lines between fairness and injustice become as blurred as the distinction between the greyness of concrete, sky and water and the eternal presence of wind and of cold.

To say much more about the scenario and the plot would be far too revealing so I will revert back to allusion, to the fictions I compared The Wall to, and to the allegory-not-allegory feel of the novel. Clearly a starting point of the novel could be the the attitude of some regimes towards immigrants and people they regard as somehow different in looks or belief, especially regimes which emphasise a fortress mentality; the germ of this fiction could equally be the climate crisis, rising sea levels and extreme weather patterns exacerbated by global heating.

But I also think Lanchester wants us to be aware of literary allusions. Joseph Kavanagh must surely be a nod towards Kafka’s Joseph K of The Trial, a novel where the individual is unjustly accused of unspecified crimes and who lives a nightmare existence of uncertainty and deprivation until a conclusion of sorts. I also detect echoes of Peter Pan with its flight from an apparently safe environment and its island Neverland with pirates, ships and Lost Boys, along with an indeterminate Wendy figure. Finally, in Kavanagh I detect parallels with Guy Montag, the protagonist in Fahrenheit 451 whose role as Fireman in many ways complements Kavanagh’s role as Defender, and who feels as alienated from his fellow citizens as Montag feels different from the citizens of Bradbury’s future America, made soporific by mass media distractions, incurious and even impervious to knowledge and truth.

In this first person narrative the author portrays a not too imaginative young protagonist, not at all literary or intellectual, who struggles to survive in a world without logic by accepting what’s thrown at him. In truth he really has no choice; he has to accept or make matters worse for himself. Is there an upside to what unfolds?

‘Everything is going to be all right,’ I said, that’s what a story is, something where everything turns out all right […]

This is what Kavanagh writes towards the end of this bleak novel as if to say, It’s only a story, it’s not real life. Stories aren’t real, are they. And yet stories should have a happy ending, shouldn’t they, and not end ambiguously. Surely?


A read for #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

18 thoughts on “What a story is

  1. The idea of being born into a world (that sounds like a more severe version of the present), and not knowing life any different is a frightening one indeed, as is the fact that these sci-fi worlds are not so very different from how things turn out to be.

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    1. The author is an investigative journalist as well as a fiction writer so this parable of a post-Brexit postdiluvian Britain suffering — as the rest of the globe is — from climate disaster, scarcity and isolationism under an oligarchy that lies to its people is a picture of what yet awaits the UK, only slightly exaggerated. I only hope it stands as a warning, not a prophecy.

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    1. Thank you! I’m not sure I could bear to read it again (good though it is) as it feels a little too close to imminent reality, but I heartily recommend it to anyone who still thinks an enlightened and benevolent democracy is what many of us in the West inhabit.

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    1. I really am not a huge fan of dystopian fiction but this seemed sufficiently distanced in terms of timescale and the sheer impracticality of building a concrete wall along more than 12,000 km of Britain’s coast, whether against rising sea levels or refugees. I took it as heightened reality though the narration is deliberately done in a deadpan style.

      And no, we don’t always get happy endings but we can but hope!

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  2. This is in my bedside bookcase – I must read it. Funnily enough I listened to a webinar hosted by Rathbones Folio last night in which John Lanchester talked about dystopias with Kamila Shamsie and Razia Iqbal. He was particularly interesting to listen to.

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    1. I really want to read more of his stuff now—I bought this on a whim last year but only read it this month when I was feeling a little more optimistic about the outcome of the US elections, with the candidate most likely to lose being the one who’d shouted most loudly about Building the Wall four years ago. Just reading the blurbs on Lanchester’s other novels has brought up more titles I hope to read in the next year or so!

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    1. Oooh, I possibly remember you reviewed this, Cath, and shall go and investigate now! I agree, much was underplayed regarding the politics (the wall itself, obviously—Trump’s Big Idea—but also UK government lying and gaslighting its population) though I was less certainly what the Change involved: other than sea levels rising there must have been other global catastrophes such earthquakes or tsunamis.

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