I Will Survive
In a story made dystopian by climate change, it is our future that writes back
In his essay The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh argues that the modern novel celebrates ‘bourgeois regularity’ to the point of derangement. This is how literature and politics are complicit: both literary and political choices have focused on securing a settlement in the wilderness, a secure, focused narrative. There is a protagonist who narrows down time and space, and tells a story within such confines. This explains why the climate change novel never took off except in the marginalised genre of science fiction, as there is little chance for uncanny forces to destabilise a human narrative. Ghosh sought to rectify this in Gun Island, where tropical spiders appear in Europe and unexpected migration flows over time might allow a Bengali warning to save your life at a Venetian construction site. John Lanchester’s The Wall
also focuses on climate change and migration. A Man Booker nomination shows that a fantasy novel on these issues is no longer marginalised. Set in an indeterminate future, the Change has drowned most of world. England survives and has literally walled off its coast; beaches exist only on videos recorded by guilty parents. All the resentful children are required to serve time on the Wall, defending the coastline from the Others. Killing them on sight or be killed.
There are two telling details provided early on in the book: if an Other slips past a Defender, the Defender is put to sea. The only way to get off this defence-conscription is to be a Breeder, or have children. No one in the younger generation wants to bring a child into this world and though trained to kill migrants on sight, they possess both amiable humour and a strong moral conscience. They sympathise with the plight of the Others but also have a strong sense of duty. The narrator, a Defender, takes the reader through three very different moods: the loneliness of being on the Wall, the invasion of Others, where death could happen any second, and being in the open sea on a lifeboat looking for warmth and food, small island communities and the absence of pirates. What is common to these moods is the steady, personal voice of the narrator, grasping at the possibility of food and rest, at the joy of an oil lamp in the open sea. If Ghosh seeks to destabilise bourgeois regularity in the wake of climate change, Lanchester seeks to revive it. The novel’s fidelity to a singular sensory consciousness guides us through some disturbing and murky terrain. It is tempting to root for the outnumbered narrator in a shoot-out against the Others. The captain of the Defenders used to be an Other and the novel invites us to be suspicious of him. Oil might have been instrumental in destroying the world, but an oil rig may be the narrator’s last hope for warmth and shelter. The narrator of The Wall is Joseph Kavanagh. Much like Franz Kafka’s Josef K., there is a moment in the novel where he is tried without him having a say. Perhaps Lanchester suggests that the non-negotiability of our times is a never-ending trial, no matter which side you’re on. However, unlike the disoriented Josef K, Kavanagh is the author of his story. And he has a plot.