Apoca­lypse soon

John Lanch­ester’s dystopian vi­sion

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - DONALD CLARKE - JONATHAN McALOON

THEWALL JOHN LANCH­ESTER Faber, 288pp, £14.99

It is al­ways a sur­prise and a plea­sure to learn what form John Lanch­ester’s next book will take. His de­but The Debt to Plea­sure, a sub­lime bit of Naboko­vian trick­ery in which a mur­derer tells his life-story through recipes, re­mains one of the best nov­els of the 1990s.

Sub­se­quent of­fer­ings couldn’t have been more dif­fer­ent, and this decade his writ­ing has cir­cled the af­ter­math of the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis, re­sult­ing in a big state-of-the-na­tion novel and a brace of non-fic­tion books about it.

His next takes on an­other loom­ing dis­as­ter, if not sev­eral. Set in a dystopian fu­ture, it de­scribes ad­ven­ture and drudgery in the life of Joseph “Chewy” Ka­vanagh, a young Bri­tish con­script made to stare out to sea for 12 hours a day with a gun in his hand. Fol­low­ing an en­vi­ron­men­tal event known as “the Change”, only the wealth­i­est and most temperate coun­tries have found ways of re­main­ing hab­it­able, and a con­crete wall has been built around the UK’s coast­line to stop the risen sea level de­stroy­ing the is­land. But this is also there to keep out mi­grants called “Oth­ers”, who are so des­per­ate to live some­where safe that they come highly trained, with grap­pling hooks and au­to­matic ri­fles.

Ev­ery­thing Lanch­ester gives us, along with the en­vi­ron­men­tal as­pect, is an echo of our own day; Trump’s bor­der wall, hy­po­thet­i­cal post-Brexit bor­ders, the refugee cri­sis. His al­le­gory is a strange, pow­er­ful mix­ture of ex­ac­er­ba­tion and sym­pa­thy, man­i­fest­ing the night­mares in­su­lar peo­ple have about threat­en­ing for­eign­ers and then hu­man­is­ing them all the way back to tragedy. While the Oth­ers fight for their lives, so do “De­fend­ers” like Ka­vanagh, who will be put out to sea and de­prived of cit­i­zen­ship if they let any­one over the Wall. Ev­ery­one is a loser.

Lanch­ester’s prose can be hemmed in and claus­tro­pho­bic, sprawl out in half-page sen­tences, or turn into con­crete po­etry ex­per­i­ments, but it is al­ways func­tional and prac­tised. To fit it­self to time pass­ing on the Wall dur­ing a 12-hour watch, nov­el­is­tic at­ten­tion to de­tail is slowed down. The eat­ing of an en­ergy bar or dry sand­wich will lead to its qual­i­ties, nor­mally be­yond no­tice, be­ing zoned in on for para­graphs. It takes 40 pages to get through the first of the nar­ra­tor’s shifts. Be­cause of this, when ac­tion does come, it is well earned in terms of pace. The book’s many vi­o­lent scenes and ac­tion se­quences are well-de­scribed, and can be riv­et­ing.

New set of ex­pec­ta­tions

But by plac­ing such em­pha­sis on the ac­tion, Lanch­ester draws the fire of a whole new set of ex­pec­ta­tions spe­cific to the genre. Sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief is no longer a given, but a tar­get. We look for holes in the book’s strate­gic game. No! We might shout at the book, in lieu of a screen. Why don’t the De­fend­ers scour the sea with search­lights for ap­proach­ing boats? They’ve got drones, so why not ther­mal imag­ing tech­nol­ogy that can pick bod­ies out against the cold ocean on a dark night? Why don’t they use old siege de­fence tech­niques, like pour­ing vo­latile liq­uids down the Wall?

This is one of the geeky, triv­ial joys of wit­ness­ing ac­tion scenes play out in a care­fully-built world. But this sort of scru­tiny isn’t what you want dog­ging a text with such a se­ri­ous un­der­tow of mes­sage and parable, and with such prox­im­ity to a world many peo­ple in these is­lands and the world at large fear will be­come the fu­ture. Lanch­ester, one can also tell, has gone to great and largely suc­cess­ful lengths to make the mil­i­tary drudge of Ka­vanagh’s life re­al­is­tic.

The day-to-day tex­ture of Lanch­ester’s world is bril­liantly re­alised. Peo­ple fetishise TV shows from a time when beaches ex­isted. “How did peo­ple know what to want?”, thinks one char­ac­ter about the days be­fore peo­ple were made to eat sea­son­ally, and could buy in­gre­di­ents from any part of the world, year round. One of the most in­ter­est­ing points is the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the gen­er­a­tions.

Par­ents still have the re­flexes of par­ents, but “the life ad­vice, the know­ing-bet­ter, the back-in-our-day wis­dom which, ac­cord­ing to books and films, was a big part of the whole deal be­tween par­ents and chil­dren, just doesn’t work”.

The pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion didn’t have to serve on the Wall, and they de­stroyed the world for the next. But some “didn’t like it that younger peo­ple [were] univer­sally agreed to have had a worse deal than [their] gen­er­a­tion”. There is noth­ing that, reading this book, you can’t imag­ine be­ing a symp­tom of such a world. And it’s a world you feel Lanch­ester could con­tinue to visit for a whole se­ries of nov­els.

‘‘ His al­le­gory is a strange, pow­er­ful mix­ture of ex­ac­er­ba­tion and sym­pa­thy, man­i­fest­ing the night­mares in­su­lar peo­ple have about threat­en­ing for­eign­ers and then hu­man­is­ing them all the way back to tragedy

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