Although space may appear to be an unending frontier, on Earth, we define space in the modern sense as anything that is contained. Space is enclosed, defined, and legible by walls, fences, and barriers. In reality, we often have to use qualifiers like “open space” to define totally natural landscapes like parks and forests as locations without geographical constraints these days.
Enclosures have existed for generations, but the walls they erect have never been as high or politically charged. One of the most contentious features of the Trump presidency in the United States was the construction of a southern border wall with Mexico. However, as climate change accelerates and the number of refugees worldwide rises, barriers are becoming a more prevalent phenomenon and political instrument. Recently, Greece installed fencing along its border with Turkey in anticipation of an influx of Afghan refugees escaping violence in the aftermath of the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul.
In his evocative novel, appropriately titled “The Wall,” John Lanchester has amplified these themes of walls, dread, and politics.
The premise is straightforward: A thinly veiled United Kingdom, ravaged by climate change and significant migration from beyond the island, erects a universal wall along its whole coastline, stationing sentries every few meters or so to keep an eye on the barriers for any prospective attackers. Their primary purpose is to keep “they,” whoever “they” maybe, out. Exile and banishment are metaphorical punishments for failure, with the watchers becoming the watched.
We primarily follow a pair of sentinels who, as the above rule almost guarantees, will be exiled in the course of their duties. In a world that is more unfriendly to being a shelter for much of anyone, we have a meditation on the meaning of home, as well as the meaning of obstacles and displacement. While the plot and characters are somewhat underwhelming, what is remarkable about the novel is how skillfully it manages to evoke a sense of dread, as if the civilization is nearing the end of its journey.
People exist, parties are thrown, and work is done, but all of this occurs in a world where the jet stream has probably vanished, plummeting our fictional United Kingdom into the freezing abyss. The novel’s theme of gray, melancholy darkness runs throughout the book, characterizing everything from the wall’s construction to the characteristics of the people who live in it.
That’s the ironic tension that drives the plot forward: global warming warms us up as we gain the faraway sangfroid to combat the heat’s ravaging effects. We’re human, but we’re made of wood, cut off from the connections and communities we’ve known in order to preserve what little we have left.