I have been a fan of John Lanchester for a number of years and The Wall is every bit as good as his previous works.
Ostensibly set in a future world where sea levels have risen to catastrophic levels, the Wall is in fact a wry commentary on present days right wing politics around the world and fear of immigration.
Kavanagh is a young man embarking on his two years of national service patrolling the Wall - a high concrete structure built around the British coastline to keep the sea - and The Others - away. Kavanagh is a typical late teen in dreaming of completing his service and working his way up into the elite. Just so long as he can complete his national service without mishap, either being killed in action against invading parties of Others or, even worse, being put to sea to balance out an Other who might have made it across the Wall.
We see, through Kavanagh’s uncritical eyes, that not only does there seem to be plenty of space and resource in Britain, but there is even a problem with low birth rates. Despite this, the drawbridge has well and truly been pulled up because “Britain is Full”. Those Others who do make it in are only allowed to work as Help (essentially servants) in a Gastarbeiter role. Despite their apparently necessary work, they will never become full citizens.
As the novel develops, Kavanagh has an opportunity to travel and see different perspectives; he is able to see the adulation given to the Defenders by ordinary citizens who imagine some kind of noble selflessness among the conscripted men and women; he sees the life of comfort of the older generation who created the system; and ultimately he sees the other side of the Wall.
As a novel, the Wall is pacy and readable - if perhaps the non-Kavanagh characters are a little under-developed. But as a satire, it is powerful. It exposes the economic and moral lack of justification for the current fashion for isolationism. Yes, that means Brexit, it means Stop The Boats, it means Love it or Leave, it means the current predilection with finding the enemies within and stripping them of their citizenship.
The Wall is a very necessary novel for our times that will pose (and leave unanswered) many questions about loyalty, identity, patriotism and xenophobia. And it is absolutely not about climate change. *****
I got this book out of the library this morning and started reading it early afternoon. I cannot put it down and am already nearly a quarter of the way through. I have heard of John Lanchester but up until now never read one of his books. So far the praise I have heard of the author has not been overstated. Although not always easy to read the book is compelling.
It's Monday morning and Mr Phillips puts on his suit, takes his briefcase and heads off for the station for his daily commute into London. The thing is, Mr Phillips lost his job on Friday.
Mr Phillips is a man caught in the wrong era. He was perfectly crafted for the 1970s - sexist, lazy, conservative. Unfortunately, he finds himself out-evolved in the 1990s, 50 years old and trained in yesterday's accountancy skills. He has spent his life wearing blinkers, going to work, coming home, reluctantly raising children and avoiding his neighbours. In this novel, John Lanchester lets us see the Monday through Mr Phillips's eyes, giving us an interior soundtrack of Mr Phillips's brain. It's actually a revelation. Yes, there's heaps of sex - or fantasies of sex because, as Mr Phillips explains, if you put a penny in a jar for every time you did it in the first year together and then took a penny out every time you did it after that, the jar would never empty. In fact, Mr Phillips spends much of his time working out little mathematical puzzles including the amount of downtime he will have in his life and the time before each lottery draw he should buy a ticket to have the probability of hitting the jackpot exceed the probability of dying before the draw.
Having decided to set out for the city as though going to work, Mr Phillips inevitably has to break out of his rut - since his rut has made him redundant. This gives him a chance to notice things he has never noticed before. He notices parks, tennis players (of the female persuasion), sex clubs, bus routes, people. He has a whole series of new experiences, most of which he struggles to ignore. Mr Phillips doesn't actually want the freedom he has suddenly acquired whilst, paradoxically, not seeming to be overly concerned at his unemployment. If you wanted a classic diagnosis, you'd have to say Mr Phillips is in extreme denial.
What makes the novel work is the counterpoint between an unlikeable man at the personal level, and the unpleasant traits of London and wider society laid out for analysis and dissection. You can see the greed, the lack of morality, the extreme politics, the general decadence and the white vans. All the while, set in a place where everybody judges everyone else on their relative wealth and/or status. Or, perhaps more accurately, where everyone assumes that other people are judging them on these grounds when, in fact, nobody is noticing them at all.
Mr Phillips is not really a plot novel. Things happen, but there's no connecting narrative drive although there are hints of Ulysses about the pointless journey and filling of time. Mostly, it is a character driven novel that relies on the humour and understatement of the narrative. Plus, there's the Salmon of Wisdom.
Capital is so titled as it is an exploration of both life in early 21st century London and some of the effects of the financial crisis on the city, as well as the role money plays in the lives of its lengthy cast list.
The novel freewheels chapter by chapter between the residents of several houses on Pepys Road, a street in an unspecified south London suburb, but probably somewhere in the vicinity of Clapham Common. The houses sell for 7 figure sums. Residents include wealthy banker Roger Yount and his recklessly extravagant wife Arabella. Further down the road is elderly widow Petunia Howe, grandmother to Graham aka Smitty a Banksy style anonymous artist. At one end of the street are the Kamals, who run a newsagents. One of the houses is owned by a football club and is occupied by a teenage Senegalese prodigy, Freddy Kano and his father, Patrick. As well as these residents, there is Polish builder Zbigniew and Hungarian nanny Matya, both employed by the street's residents, and Zimbabwean traffic warden Quentina, enforcing its parking restrictions through a shady employer.
Lanchester follows his characters' lives from December 2007 to December 2008.The residents begin to receive anonymous postcards which state "We want what you have", then photographs of their front doors are posted on a blog. From here, the campaign takes a darker turn and the police become involved.
Within this framework, the author employs his cast to show the diversity of London life. It is clear where his sympathies lie: he can barely disguise his contempt for Arabella and her ilk. Roger's career comes to a sticky and sudden halt moments before the banking crisis hits the City. Freddy's stutters. The Kamals are visited by their Pakistani matriarch and come under scrutiny from the police as the "We Want What You Have" campaign develops. Zbigniew and Matya, in London to earn money, find love and develop roots in the city.
However, Capital isn't so simplistic that the poor prosper and the greedy get their comeuppance. The immigration service catch up with Quentina, for example, and Petunia falls seriously ill.
Not all the strands work perfectly, but Lanchester finds the right tone for most of the stories: satirical for the Younts and Smitty, sentimental for Petunia and Matya, comic for Mrs Kamal's visit. If you can imagine White Teeth written by Kate Atkinson you'd be in the right area.
As a resident of the city myself (albeit the north rather than the south) Lanchester captures the chaos of London well; how immigrants keep it functioning and how much time can be spent in transit and searching for a parking space.
Unlike its most obvious recent antecedent, Sebastian Faulks' A Week in December, Capital doesn't get bogged down in explaining the machinations of the City and its institutions; thankfully Lanchester used his research in this area to write a pretty decent history of the financial collapse called Whoops!
Capital is a satisfying, readable novel, and hopefully of as much appeal to non-residents as this dyed in the wool Londoner.
The Debt to Pleasure
I first read this a while back and thought it was time for a re-read. It's not as good as I remember (though I still use "sundowners" when I'm putting on my English upper-class accent for the colonials, though I also intersperse it with Anthony Powell's "time for a few sharpeners"), but it's still got it.
The hero is deliciously over-the-top, being a snob of the highest order. He has other good points too, but I can't say much more without giving too much away. Having said that, I didn't read it this time with the same joy that I did the first time. It's still up there with the best fiction of the 1990's, but it just fails the re-readability test for it to remain in the top bracket.
The American hardback version I have is probably the best bound book I have ever handled. Lovely picture on the front, with a wonderful tactile cover and thick paper jacket. It's a work of art in itself.
For me, it's equal first with Like Water for Chocolate for the best food novel.