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Several years ago, John Lanchester wrote about George R. R. Martin for the London Review of Books. The piece showed, as did his more recent piece on Agatha Christie, an unusual-for-the-mainstream sympathy for and understanding of generic effect. The essay proceeded from the notion that a certain stripe of reader closes their minds to those effects because they become too fixated on generic method:

When you ask people why they don’t read fantasy, they usually say something along the lines of, “because elves don’t exist.” This makes no sense as an objection. Huge swathes of imaginative literature concern things that don’t exist, and as it happens, things that don’t exist feature particularly prominently in the English literary tradition. We’re very good at things that don’t exist. The fantastic is central not just to the English canon—Spenser, Shakespeare, even Dickens—but also to our amazing parallel tradition of para-literary works, from Carroll to Conan Doyle to Stoker to Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling, Pullman. There’s no other body of literature quite like it: just consider the comparative absence of fantasy from the French and Russian traditions. And yet it’s perfectly normal for widely literate general readers to admit that they read no fantasy at all. I know, because I often ask. It’s as if there is some mysterious fantasy-reading switch that in many people is set to “off.”

Lanchester went on to describe the generic effects achieved by Martin in the course of A Song of Ice and Fire, pointing out in a self-confessedly smug way all the wonderful literary feats to which its new legion of fans had finally exposed themselves, having been granted permission by HBO. Most important to the books’ impact and aesthetic, argues Lanchester, is their “sense of unsafety and instability.” These effects are possible because Martin chooses not historical fiction—in which the fate of each character or battle or city would be instantly Googleable—or contemporary fiction—in which the stakes would be more quotidian—but high fantasy. The quality of Martin’s fiction exists not despite of but due to its fantastical settings. In other words, Lanchester-the-critic sees past the trappings of genre and towards its purposes, its peculiar potentials.

All this seems important when reading the latest work from Lanchester-the-novelist, The Wall. These two parts of the author—the essayist and the fictioneer—have always sat side by side: his 2012 novel, Capital (itself adapted for television, by the BBC in 2015), drew in subject and theme directly from his superlative nonfiction writing on the 2008 financial crash, across many forums and platforms but most obviously found in Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (2010). So in one sense there is of course little of interest in the work of this particular critic passing over into their work as this particular novelist. But The Wall chooses as its very title perhaps Martin’s most potent and memorable invention, that barrier between Westeros and the wildlings on which Jon Snow spends so much windswept time. The novel is set in a future Britain that has erected around itself a forbidding bulwark against the reputed waves of climate refugees that would otherwise supposedly overwhelm the formerly proud island, now trapped in an unending monoseason. It features as its protagonists the same sorts of craggy sentinels we meet in A Game of Thrones: misfits and conscripts, standing for hours on a freezing rampart, scanning the horizon for the approach of Others who are both dreaded but also only dimly imagined.

These parallels are unignorable, and yet in the mainstream press have passed by with almost no sustained attention at all—as Lanchester-the-critic may well have prophesied. Instead, reviewers have concentrated on The Wall as “a Brexity or Trumpish satire on xenophobia and isolationism”: even Tom Holland in The Guardian, who does well to cite the Night’s Watch and other SF&F staples such as the work of H. G. Wells, offers the commonplace that the novel “packs its punch by extrapolating a terrifying future from present trends”; Daisy Buchanan in The Independent reads the novel entirely through this lens and concludes that she is “simply consuming another observation about the world at its worst”; Tim Martin in The Spectator declares that “the novel is visibly tuned to invite allegorical speculation.”

This last argument is particularly frustrating because The Wall tells us almost over-keenly that we shouldn’t read it this way at all. We are not even finished with its second paragraph before we read that its narrator is not describing the frigid qualities of the Wall for poetic purposes: “the thing about the cold,” he tells us, “is that it isn’t a metaphor” (p. 3). Short of writing NOT A METAPHOR in magic marker on the inside cover of every copy of his novel, Lanchester could have done little more to alert reviewers to the nature of the book they are about to read. He might, however, have guessed his plea would go unheeded: the literary reader that tends to gather around his own work does not, as he argued so cogently in the LRB, know how to read fantasy. But like George R. R. Martin, Lanchester begins his novel in pursuit of effects other than the allegorical.

The Wall is instead for the most part a prolonged meditation on ennui. This begins on that very first page, with the unremitting cold that isn’t a metaphor. The novel’s narrator, named later and with the hint of Kafka as Joseph Kavanagh, arrives for the first time at the section of the Wall on which he has been stationed—and proceeds to climb up towards his barracks. He has been called, like every person of the appropriate age who lives in the country, to man the palisades for two years, in a shift pattern of two-weeks-on and two-weeks-off. He doesn’t want to; no one does. The Wall is notorious as a horrible place to spend time, and the mathematics of its staffing—“a Defender for every two hundred metres: fifty thousand Defenders on duty at any one time” (p. 34)—mean that there is little human company to be had during the twelve-hour stints each Defender puts in every day. In this context, the overwhelming emotion felt by Kavanagh and his compatriots is boredom:

Time on the Wall is treacle. Eventually, after you have put in enough hours on the Wall, you learn to cope with time. You train yourself not to look at the time, because it is never, never, ever as later as you think and hope and long for it to be. You learn to float. You become completely passive; you let the day pass through you, you stop trying to pass through it. But it takes months before you can do that. In the first weeks, and especially on your first day, you look at the time every few minutes. It’s like there’s a special slow time on the Wall; you can’t believe it; you check and check again and that only makes it worse. (p. 23)

This sort of thing takes up pages and pages of the novel. It is gripping. At one point, Kavanagh uses the phrase “undanceable rhythm” to describe the pattern of “slow, slow, slower, sudden pandemonium” that characterises his days (p. 105); this is also a good means of describing the novel’s prose style. It is recursive and reflective, but somehow never repetitive or navel-gazing. For example, here’s Kavanagh taking part in a war game:

[…] the idea that standing for twelve hours in the dark and bitter cold with an automatic weapon, waiting for someone to attack you, with certain death the price of failure, marks you in such a way that standing for twelve hours in the dark and slightly less cold waiting for someone to pretend to attack you, by comparison, feels like fun. (p. 88)

Or here he is idly musing on the pleasures of a bygone age, as if to distract himself from the featureless risen sea-levels of his own:

Put it like this: there are some people my age who have a thing about beaches. They watch movies and TV programmes about beaches, they look at pictures of beaches, they ask the olds what it was like to go to a beach, what it felt like to lie on sand all day, and what was it like to build a sandcastle and watch the water come in and see the sandcastle fight off the water and then succumb to it, a castle which once looked so big and invulnerable, just melting away, so that when the tide goes out you can’t see there was ever anything there […] (p. 56)

Lanchester also has his narrator adopt the concrete poem as his chosen form of composition, a mode of verse that seeks to match in the shape of its stanzas the form of the thing it describes:

concrete concrete concrete concrete concrete
concrete concrete concrete concrete concrete
concrete concrete concrete concrete concrete
concrete concrete concrete concrete concrete
concrete concrete concrete concrete concrete
concrete concrete concrete concrete concrete (p. 15)

All of this fills the minutes of Kavanagh’s interminable days, but it also reflects the fundamental exhaustion of the society around him—and it’s this, not Boris Johnson or US border policy, that is key to understanding the novel’s form and effect. Defenders guard the Wall for a fortnight, and then receive a week’s leave (their second off-week consists of training). It is in these week’s holidays that we see those parts of this future Britain that are not the Wall. In one furlough period, Kavanagh returns to his parents, with whom—in common with the rest of his generation—he has a distant, bitter, attenuated relationship informed in large part by a shared knowledge that the “olds feel they irretrievably fucked up the world, then allowed us to be born into it [… and] Everybody knows it” (p. 55); as soon as he leaves, he sees through the window that they have immediately “turned on a programme about surfing” (p. 60). In another of his weeks away, Kavanagh visits the Lake District with other members of his Wall squad; they visit “an old-time fantasy of an English inn, with saloon and lounge and snug, wood panels, cosy” (p. 71). On a third jolly, he visits the coastside cottage that belongs to the mother of Hifa, a fellow Defender with whom he has struck up a romantic relationship; she lives in a cottage, “small and pretty on the outside, painted white, with a wooden gate, a trellis of flowers on the front wall and a small garden” (p. 148).

In these vignettes of the new England, Lanchester is being quietly vicious. Brian Aldiss once coined the term “cosy catastrophe” for a certain strain of British post-apocalypse: he was thinking of John Wyndham, in whose dystopias derring-do was done and the world ended without encroaching upon afternoon tea; but I always think of John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (1956), in which the horticultural holocaust causes only just enough panic to inconvenience the protagonists’ cross-country journey to a potato farm within spitting distance of that staple of Country Life, Kendal. The Wall seems to dabble in similar fare—even as we hear whisper of the catastrophic fates of faraway countries of which the British know little, life carries on more or less as before for them at home (if one ignores the Wall, of course—and by and large the wider populace seems to, treating Defenders returning home on the train as modern commuters might deal with rowdy football fans on a Saturday afternoon). But it is in fact depicting a society with a death-wish, a culture continuing, almost on instinct, to suck in air but for no discernible benefit. Why watch a documentary on surfing when in your own world waves can bring only death? How obscene is it that one might sup a pint near Windermere when Others are living off raw gulls, afloat on rafts? And what price the picturesque coastal cottage when it is staffed by Help, Others who have made it over the Wall only to be captured and sold into unwaged labour?[1] We learn in a speech by a politician to Kavanagh’s group of defenders that “the Change was not a single solitary event” elsewhere, that for the Others “the Change did not stop” (pp. 110-111); only in Britain did the Walls come up and time somehow kept at bay. It is a culture fiercely jealous of its encasement within amber.

“It is a falling away, a lessening of one’s own humanity,” Hifa’s mother sighs as she accepts the tea that her Help hand to her, rendering slavery in the best traditions of the mode a matter of its effects upon the owner class (p. 149). This is a “civilisation” stretched thin across the misshapen frame it has built to contain—and exclude—the impossible circumstances in which it finds itself selfishly seeking to struggle. When Kavanagh finally meets an Other late in the novel, they sneer, “The thing we most despise about you, you people, is your hypocrisy. You push children off a life raft and wish to feel good about yourselves for doing it” (p. 191). The Wall is a study of the kind of culture that might—that does—do that, the sort of exhausted society that might cling on to something like modern Western “living standards” in the context of a world destroyed by climate change. In this way, the ennui experienced by Kavanagh on the Wall—the tedium we experience vicariously as he stands, frostbitten and passive, waiting to repel people who must otherwise simply drown—is also the condition of the ghost culture he inhabits. In doing so, The Wall rightly turns on its head the puerile arguments of right-wing fronts such as the Gatestone Institute, or authors such as Douglas Murray in The Strange Death of Europe (2017), that civilisational exhaustion explains what they insist is the West’s “refusal” to face down “radical Islam”—and makes the case that a society truly tired is one which can no longer find itself able to embrace the Other.

The literalism of this interpretation is, of course, enabled by the effects of genre: The Wall isn’t about leaving the European Union or emigrating to Texas; it is about the Wall, and it both shows and tells you this both explicitly and implicitly as it proceeds. The lack of mainstream apprehension of this fact—which Lanchester himself identified in his critical work—explains, in this way, the confused response to this example of his fiction. It’s a particular shame, then, that Lanchester seems to lose confidence in his concept in the final third of his novel: The Wall swerves abruptly out of the tedious lane of its Wall-set segments and onto a quite different freeway, full of narrow escapes and exploding heads, ships on fire and rafts adrift.

Kavanagh’s life on the Wall is punctuated by sudden, and rare, bouts of Other assault; but one group of attackers gets the better of him and his squad. As per the rules of this insular Britain, the failed Defenders are cast to sea, their citizenship revoked. It would have been a wonderful twist had the novel ended with Kavanagh staring, endlessly, at the Wall he had once stood on, endlessly. Instead, he and Hifa—who even in this section never quite develops a personality of her own—proceed through a set of action scenes, one following another in such quick succession that the listlessness of the preceding sections is almost forgotten.

The rafts had broken up and were on fire. Acrid smoke was pouring up from the tar-soaked ropes that had bound the community together. The pirate ship was on fire too, what was left of it, but the top half of the ship had disappeared. The grenade must have ignited a big supply of either fuel or ammunition or both. The first explosion was the grenade, the second whatever the first one had set off. There could be no survivors on the ship and not many of the rafts either and the fire was coming towards our lifeboat. (p. 239)

This is a scene straight out of the notoriously underbaked Hollywood Kevin Costner vehicle, Waterworld (1995)—except it isn’t, because for some reason it is written by John Lanchester and included in his 2019 novel, The Wall. The irony is that, in suddenly adopting plot as the primary driver of his novel—pirates! explosions! imminent jeopardy! —Lanchester abandons the “sense of unsafety and instability” he so rightly identified as one of George R. R. Martin’s finer literary qualities. The Wall is at its most unpredictable when it is at its most becalmed—because it is then at its least familiar. As the novel takes a whistle-stop tour through the motifs of the action-adventure story, its narrative becomes rather more well-worn, perhaps with the intention of taking in the lives of the Others more directly and completely. That it does so in such a formulaic fashion seems a shame: I read the novel entirely confident of the humanity of the Others—short of its roots in high fantasy, the novel gave me no reason to doubt my assumption—and in this sense I didn’t need the novel’s final third to prove, especially so schematically, this self-evident fact. Perhaps Lanchester was not quite so confident that every reader would bring the same feeling to the novel; but he makes very clear that the Others’ inner lives and struggles are every bit as real as his Defenders’ in the revelation that Kavangh’s senior officer hails himself from beyond the Wall. The purpose of the thin diversions of this suddenly, and unconvincingly, incident-heavy final section, then, are obscure; though they at least allow for a telling moment at the novel’s end, when Kavanagh and Hifa are saved by a man who explains he only did so because the pair are just two in number—in this world, even the kind have imposed limits upon their beneficence—but this seems slim reason to have otherwise untethered the narrative from the novel’s formal and thematic heart.

Perhaps Lanchester isn’t quite sure how to end a story about a society that has, in truth, ended long before his novel’s opening pages—and so he leaves it behind, in search of the flash-bang one expects from one’s genre outings. In the final chapters of the novel, in other words, Lanchester comes to resemble those mainstream readers at whom he shook his head so ruefully in the pages of the LRB: he is, after all, ultimately an author of literary fiction … and genre fiction is distinguished from that mode by its trappings, right? By pirates and explosions and imminent jeopardy? That’s what’s needed, surely? Reader, since you choose Strange Horizons for your criticism, you already know better. And The Wall stands tallest when it remembers instead that the effect’s the thing.


[1] Help is worth a substantial detour, since it is in some ways an unusual concept. It is not chattel slavery, and Lanchester’s Britain does not operate in any meaningful economic way on the basis of forced labour—instead, Help primarily stands as a sort of revivification of the Downton Abbey social structure, allowing an Upstairs, Downstairs dynamic in this zombie England, where otherwise such class-based ease would be denied the elite. In other words, it is a shortcut to comfort, where by rights it should not be possible. Others who make it across the Wall are inevitably captured, and then “have to choose between being euthanised, becoming Help or being put back to sea” (p. 47). Most Others choose to become Help, we’re told, because their children are then guaranteed citizenship. (In this way, Kavanagh’s Britain dangles a carrot before the “hordes” it apparently wish to repel—comfortable in the knowledge that only just enough will make it past the Wall to grease the wheels of, but never enough to represent a challenge to, the system.)

As a system of indenture, Help focuses not on fields or factories but on domestic work—preparing picnics, carrying bags, making tea. “Help is free but you have to feed and clothe and house it so the costs still add up,” we are told (p. 58). This means in turn that “Help is unaffordable for most ordinary people” (p. 69). But on their camping trip to the Lake District—where these extra costs are less significant—Kavanagh and his gang make use of Help. They experience it as “having a life upgrade” (p. 79), and consequently its appeal to the elite who run the country is made clear. I’m not entirely sure that Lanchester’s evocation of slavery here is entirely thought-through or solid; but it serves—perhaps a little indecorously—the same function as the novel’s pubs and doilies: as a marker of a certain vision of Anglo privilege prolonged. [return]

Dan Hartland's reviews have appeared for some years at Strange Horizons, as well as in publications such as Vector, Foundation, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He blogs intermittently at
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