John Lanchester’s Eerily Resonant Novel About Borders and Rising Sea Levels

John Lanchester’s Eerily Resonant Novel About Borders and Rising Sea Levels

Walled Off

John Lanchester’s speculative new novel about our not-so-distant future.


In the beginning, the wall was an experiment. To see if a show of force might deter illegal crossings, the Clinton administration authorized the Border Patrol in 1993 to position hundreds of agents and vehicles along the border between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Within weeks, the number of apprehensions at the El Paso station dropped significantly, and although unlawful border crossings in nearby areas rose, the agent-and-vehicle blockade, later referred to as Operation Hold the Line, was considered a success. A year later, the administration tried something new: a 12-foot-high steel fence at the border between San Diego and Tijuana, along a stretch of land that leads to the Pacific Ocean. The number of illegal crossings in the area fell dramatically, an outcome that Janet Reno, then the attorney general, called “just excellent.” However, the flow of immigrants did not stop; it was merely redirected eastward, to remote areas that were much more dangerous to cross. Soon, smugglers became involved. But the steel fence served as tangible proof that action was being taken, and by 1995, Clinton could report in his State of the Union address that his administration had “moved aggressively to secure our borders.”

Securing the border, it turned out, was an ongoing process. It meant an almost yearly increase in the Border Patrol’s budget, a severe expansion of penalties on undocumented immigrants, and the construction of more physical barriers. In 2006, George W. Bush signed into law the Secure Fence Act, which provided funding for 700 miles of fencing along the border between the United States and Mexico. The fence took the form of vehicle checkpoints and steel barriers, which were erected over the next 10 years. The number of illegal crossings on the southern border declined steadily during that decade, a fact that Barack Obama cited as evidence of his own administration’s seriousness on the issue of securing the border. At the same time, the number of migrant deaths in the borderlands continued to rise. Accurate figures are difficult to come by, but the Border Patrol estimates that more than 7,500 migrants have died in remote mountains and deserts since the first wall was erected.

Of course, the word “wall” was rarely used, either by elected officials or in the media. For a long time, the preferred terms were “fence,” “barrier,” “border defense,” and “border-protection system.” But all of these euphemisms were stripped away in 2015, when Donald Trump made one of his campaign slogans a simple three-word chant: “Build that wall.” This would be a structure, he assured his audiences, to keep out the “criminals,” “rapists,” and various “bad hombres.” He promised that it would be “big,” “beautiful,” and, above all, “impenetrable.”

What would happen if an impenetrable wall was completed in America—or, for that matter, any other country? This is the question that the British writer John Lanchester explores in his new novel, The Wall. It takes place in an unnamed island nation sometime after “the Change”—presumably the kind of climate catastrophe that scientists have warned us about for the past three decades. Parts of the world are submerged under rising seawater, forcing an untold number of “Others” to seek refuge on the island, where they are met by a 16-foot-high concrete wall.

The story is told from the point of view of Joseph Kavanagh, a young man who has just arrived at the Wall to begin his two-year military service as a “Defender.” Like the others conscripted into this role, he is tasked with protecting the homeland from outsiders. The increasingly draconian laws that the government has enacted to deter people from coming have had little effect on the number of migrants: They keep trying to reach the island. If an Other somehow manages to get past the Wall, the Defender responsible for the breach is immediately put out to sea as retribution.

The conceit of The Wall is simple, and the rules are straightforward. Yet Lanchester spends a lot of time discussing the daily minutiae of life there—again and again, he tells readers how cold it is at the Wall, how long a Defender’s shift is, how welcome the coffee breaks are, and how terrible it is to have to go back into the cold after a night at the barracks. By contrast, the main characters’ inner lives receive less attention, leaving readers with little insight into their pasts, their hopes, or their impulses. For this reason, The Wall is best read as an exploration of the immediate consequences and logical implications of a punitive border machine.

At the Wall, Kavanagh becomes acquainted with other Defenders, including the Captain, a mysterious figure with a knack for showing up exactly when he is least expected; the Sergeant, who laughs at his own jokes; and the Corporal, whose hobby is whittling. “Don’t look so worried,” the Corporal tells Kavanagh. “You know that thing they say, don’t worry, it might never happen? This is different. You’re on the Wall. It already has.” Defending the border means standing guard in 12-hour shifts, waiting for the slightest hint of movement on the water.

The first time a group of Others tries to breach the Wall while Kavanagh is there, he is on his coffee break. It takes him a moment to realize what’s happening, but he grabs his rifle and manages to repel them. The confrontation results in the deaths of several Defenders and all of the Others in the group. “So none of us would be put to sea,” Kavanagh says, with evident relief. He has been seriously injured, though, and has to spend a few days in the hospital, where he becomes close with a fellow conscript, a woman named Hifa. “Do you want to Breed with me?” she asks him, somewhat abruptly. Love and romance aren’t absent from the novel’s dystopian future, but life after the Change is so bleak that birthrates have fallen, and the government provides incentives—including exemption from service—to encourage people to become Breeders.

The story becomes more propulsive from this point forward. Kavanagh, Hifa, and the other Defenders return to active duty on the Wall, where they wait for more border crossings. There are rumors that the Others have sympathizers, island citizens who think the Wall should keep out the rising water, not human beings, and who object to turning the refugees into “Help”—that is, slaves of the state, which contracts them out as servants to individual citizens. Of course, the sympathizers are characterized as “traitors” by an ambitious politician Kavanagh meets, a “shiny young man with a mop of blond hair,” who assures the Defenders, “You are the best in the world. This country is the best in the world. We have prevailed, we do prevail, we will prevail.”

Lanchester is at his best when he examines this dystopia through the lens of class and privilege. As a citizen, Kavanagh enjoys a few freedoms, including freedom of movement, that the Others do not have. But he has no wealth or social connections, which means that serving a two-year stint at the Wall is inevitable. Still, he has ambition. Although he is unclear about his plans once his service is done, he believes that if he can distinguish himself somehow, opportunities might open up:

I used to have secret ideas about what I wanted to do: secret in the strong sense that I had never told anyone. I wanted to get away from home (that part was no secret), to get as much education as I could, to get a job where I made lots of money, and to become a member of the elite. All this was too vague to count as a plan. I didn’t know anyone who had done it; I didn’t know the details of how to do it; but I knew that it could be done. Elites have to let in some outsiders; that is a basic rule of how they work. It’s how they renew themselves and how they spread just enough of the benefits around to stop disorder rising from below. Also, elites need new blood because it’s the newly arrived members of the elite who know how the rest of the population is thinking, right now.

While breaking into the elites’ circles may be possible for someone like Kavanagh, those on the other side of the Wall aren’t as lucky: If they are caught crossing the border, they face a choice of being euthanized, returned to sea, or becoming Help. Even if they’re not apprehended at the Wall, Others who breach the border are likely to be arrested later (because everyone else on the island has been implanted with microchips) and then forced to make this impossible choice—a choice that does not bother Kavanagh all that much. “Wanting to have Help was on my secret wish list,” he confides. “Having Help was like having a life upgrade.”

Lanchester is the author of four previous works of fiction, most notably The Debt to Pleasure, a darkly comic story framed as a cookbook/memoir, and Capital, a novel set in London during the 2008 financial crisis. He is also a prolific writer of nonfiction whose essays and reportage on food, finance, technology, and British politics appear regularly in the London Review of Books, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. In his writing, he displays a phenomenal ability to absorb highly specialized material (on financial markets, for example) and make it intelligible to the general reader. While The Wall is a work of dystopian fiction, it contains all the ingredients of his intensively researched nonfiction.

The conceit of the novel—a nation walled off from the rest of the world—rests on hypotheticals that are already a reality in many countries: dangerously high sea levels, militarized border walls, declining fertility rates, mass surveillance, buffoonish politicians. Even the idea of the Help is not new; in the United States, for instance, some immigrant-detention facilities already use forced migrant labor. There are also those who argue, like Eric Posner and Glen Weyl in their recent book Radical Markets, that the United States should go one step further and allow US citizens to personally bring in migrant labor from abroad at a mutually agreed-upon price. (Politico covered the book under the obscene headline “What if you could get your own immigrant?”) So The Wall cannot be faulted for a lack of plausibility. Rather, this is a book that asks readers to consider the logical results of the border systems under which they currently live.

In a novel about climate change and the refugee crisis, it is easy for a writer to slip into moralizing. But Lanchester steers clear of the temptation. Kavanagh’s daydreams about wanting to have Help are presented matter-of-factly, as are his observations about his parents’ generation, which “broke the world” when it failed to stop global warming. Lanchester is also adept at exploring the power differentials between the Defenders and the Others and between the Defenders and civilians.

The landscape of speculative fiction allows for exactly this kind of unfettered exploration, taking readers in unexpected directions or revealing connections they might not have noticed. Novels like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go give us more than conjecture about future or parallel worlds: They explore the inner lives of ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances and give us a new language to think about dissent, freedom, and mortality. By comparison, Lanchester remains so focused on the brutal apparatus of border enforcement that he neglects those who are caught up in it, whether Defender or Other. In one chapter, Kavanagh spends a few days with his parents, from whom he feels alienated; in another, he goes with Hifa to visit her mother, from whom she feels similarly alienated. But these brief forays into the characters’ relationships feel too slight and schematic to contribute much weight to either of their stories.

Despite these weaknesses, Lanchester deserves praise for telling a story of climate change and migration in the speculative mode at a time when reality itself can seem like a dystopia. In 2018, for example, the Trump administration announced a zero-tolerance policy on undocumented immigration. Almost immediately, US Customs and Border Protection began separating migrant and asylum-seeking children from their parents, placing them in detention facilities or in foster care, without the necessary paperwork to keep track of them. We may not yet have the Wall as Lanchester (or Trump) has imagined it, but new horrors are revealed every day: a 5-year-old child persuaded to sign papers forgoing her right to a bond hearing, a 2-year-old girl forced to appear in federal immigration court alone, detained siblings being told they are not permitted to hug each other. And yet we all seem to carry on as if this were acceptable.

Last summer, while on a trip to Arizona, I drove through Calexico, a small city on the border between California and Mexico. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but what I found was a sleepy town, where Border Patrol trucks sit next to beat-up Honda Accords in the Applebee’s parking lot. At the hotel, the clerk politely asked me about my day. He looked to be in his early 20s; he must have been no more than a baby when the first wall was built on the southern border. Noticing my soccer jersey, he asked me which team I was rooting for in the World Cup. It was a day like any other. What Lanchester captures perfectly in The Wall is that nothing about this is normal.

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