After the Flood

The Wall: A Novel BY John Lanchester. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 288 pages. $25.

BENJAMIN KUNKEL: The scenario of your book is different from our own world, although our present is increasingly resembling the future of The Wall (Norton, $26). Could you outline the world of the novel?

JOHN LANCHESTER: It’s about an island nation where climate change and massive displacement of population mean that the whole island is surrounded by a five-meter-high concrete wall. Everybody in the country, every citizen, has to spend a two-year period standing guard on the wall to prevent what they call the Others, displaced people from other parts of the world, from getting into the country. At the start of the book, the main character and narrator, Joseph Kavanagh, is starting this two-year term of what amounts to a kind of national service.

The surname Kavanagh—was that chosen because Irish people were once upon a time Others in England, as they were also in the US?

Yes, entirely. I live in England but I’m half-Irish; my mother was Irish. We tend to forget that we are all hybrids, mongrels. One of the things I wanted to write about is that everybody was once an Other. Another thing buried in that name is that Anglo-Saxon invaders displaced the original Celtic inhabitants of the British Isles, and they were pushed west and northward. The word they used for the displaced was Welsh, which means “the foreigners,” and was an othering word used by Germanic tribes for everybody who spoke a language different from theirs. I’ve always loved the brutal simplicity of the people you’re displacing being just “the others.”

To what extent is The Wall a Brexit novel as well as a climate-change and migration novel?

In a sense it must be, because otherwise it’s too much of a coincidence, given that I started writing it in 2016. But it isn’t consciously a Brexit novel; I wasn’t sitting down to write an allegory or a parable. Really, I wrote the novel to unpack an image I couldn’t get out of my head—that’s how it started, just as an image of a man standing guard on a wall.

In novelistic allegory we have on the one hand the explicit kind in which, for example, 1984 speaks directly to Stalinist totalitarianism, or Brave New World is understood by Huxley and the reader to be about eugenics, among other things. And then there’s the other kind, a sort of blank allegory, like Kafka’s The Castle or Saramago’s Blindness, in which neither the reader nor, perhaps, the author is very clear about what the story is about. If you accept this distinction, where do you think your novel falls between those two types—if we call the former explicit allegory and the latter blind or blank allegory?

I think you’re making the term “allegory” do an awful lot of work. I’ve never thought of 1984 as being an allegory. I think of it as more of a warning. SF writers often say that they’re describing the present. It seems to me a lot of what Orwell was doing was just describing the present moment and saying, “This is coming for all of us if we’re not careful.” You are the first person to use the word “allegory.” I get a lot of invitations to use words with -topia in them, you know, dys-, u-, all of that, and lots of invitations to categorize the novel as SF, sci-fi or cli-fi or near-fi.

Could we call The Wall a climate-change warning, then?

I have been thinking about climate, when I can bear to—it’s one of those topics that’s hard to think consistently about because it’s so depressing and because it makes us feel that we have so little agency. I try to follow the big pieces of breaking news, and one of those was that in 2013 a team at the University of Hawaii published this paper in Nature about “climate departure,” climate departure being the point at which the coldest average day in the future is warmer than the warmest average day in the past. It is the new normal, in which we’re outside anything human beings have lived in before. That really lodged in my head as a powerful mental frame for what is going to happen. The paper made the point that climate departure comes to different places at different times—it comes to the equator and the tropics first—and it gave breakdowns for when it will arrive in various cities. One of the first ones is in the Indonesian part of New Guinea, Manokwari, and climate departure there is 2020. It’s in a year. And Kingston is 2023. And then Jakarta, which is a megacity, it’s got ten million people, is 2029. You know, that is close. And that was the thing that fermented, really, just . . . “Holy fuck, what’s that going to be like?” A lot of the impetus for me was just trying to imaginatively inhabit this unimaginably altered world.

Your narrator talks about the generational estrangement with his father being greater than normal due to “the Change.” I write fiction myself, and I’ve wondered to what extent a realistic novel set in, say, the world of 2019 will even be legible to people in 2029 or 2039. Is this book in some sense an effort to outrun those changes that will antiquate, rather rapidly, much of the realistic fiction written in our time?

I think part of the problem is that we can’t know the scale of these changes—they’re difficult to get your head around. I was thinking about what would happen to the moral calculus between the generations. There’s a running story we tell ourselves about previous generations and the things they were morally oblivious to but that we are acutely conscious of. And sometimes I think that has a shadow side that you can project into the future: What are we oblivious to that we’ll be judged for? I was thinking a lot about that sort of intergenerational scorecard. I have children, which makes me think about it too—not that people without kids don’t, but having kids sort of personalizes it. That point is particularly dramatized between parents and children in the novel. With the water lapping around our ankles, those judgments will seem very sharp and personal.

In many ways the water is already lapping around our ankles. The Wall may remain metaphorical in the UK, but of course here in the States it’s meant to be a practical policy on the part of the Trump administration, so this futuristic novel is contemporary in another sense. Something that struck me as very different from our contemporary moment, however, is the sense of tedium in the novel, which is emphasized by the narrator when he is a Defender on the Wall. Whereas in our moment we feel as if there are important events happening all the time. This is perhaps me speaking as an American citizen during the Trump administration, but one feels that there’s a great big drama every day.

If you’re living in a dystopian world, one thing people don’t do is walk around saying, “My god, this is all so dystopian, I feel really dystopian today, how about you?” They’re just inhabiting the reality of their lives. I really wanted to capture that. In a novel the characters’ reality is normal to them. And the normalization for them is one of the things that creates estrangement for us. If they’re astonished by it, it makes them more like us, because we’re astonished by it. One of the things Trump is trying to do, consciously or not, is to commit so many outrages that we lose our sense of outrage.

Can you say something about the willingness of the characters in the novel to enlist in military service? The first half of the twentieth century was a world of total mobilization, in which people were extraordinarily willing to be called up and sent to the front. Now we live in societies that may remain very bellicose but carry out their wars largely by drone, and people are reluctant to be conscripted. Do you think that’s something that will change as we go forward?

I think if you look at the map of the world at 4 degrees Celsius warmer, it implies something on the scale of world war, in terms of its impact on lives and on how we live and how our societies function.

I’ve heard two people in New York at parties say, “I think of that John Lanchester article about climate change in the London Review of Books in which he asks, Why aren’t we out there destroying SUVs?” And I do sometimes think that if it weren’t for my fear of going to jail, I would be an ecoterrorist. That’s a grim attitude, and I was struck by a very short stark sentence the narrator utters when he has gone from being a Defender on one side of the Wall to being an Other out at sea: “Hope is a mistake.” Is hope a mistake you make much when thinking about the future? How hopeful or despairing do you feel when looking ahead to 2100?

I think we’re right on the edge of a very sharp blade. The most recent report from the IPCC was all about keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees. That still means the ice keeps melting and sea levels rising for centuries from stored heat, but it probably saves tens of millions of lives, the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees. The fact is, a lot of governments have realized this. There’s also a massive generational thing—people my children’s age (they’re twenty and sixteen) completely get it as an emergency. And that is a source of potential hope. There are grounds for positive action, and I think it’s important to remember that, the “optimism of the will.” And yet if you look at the governments that refused to “welcome” the report—to use the official UN bullshit term—the conference as a whole didn’t “welcome” the report, because the US, Russia, and Saudi Arabia blocked it. There is this axis of refusal to admit reality. So if you want grounds for despair, there are plenty. But I think the optimism is really important, and I think it’s a really important moment, because we can still stop it; the science says we can still stop it.

OK, last question. Do you watch Game of Thrones?

Yeah, all the time, since watching the first episode when it was broadcast live.

. . . Which begins on the other side of the Wall. And Game of Thrones has been interpreted as a climate-change fable.

I know Richard Madden slightly, who played the King in the North. He was saying he was in this thing, and that his agent pitched it to him as “The Sopranos meets Lord of the Rings.” As soon as I heard the pitch I knew I was going to love it.

I went to the liquor store last night, as one does on New Year’s Eve, and I saw on display a couple of bottles of Johnnie Walker Black that were White Walker–themed—the Johnnie Walker mascot as blue-eyed zombie.

No way. That’s to go in the index under “capitalism comma infinite ingenuity of.” It’s fascinating to think about the implied consumer. Because whoever that person is, they’re not in a good place on New Year’s Eve.

Benjamin Kunkel is the author of the novel Indecision (Random House, 2005), the play Buzz (n+1 Books, 2014), and the essay collection Utopia or Bust (Verso, 2014). He lives in Boulder, Colorado.