Future and present
John Lanchester 'The wall' Faber and Faber, 2019, pp288, £14.99. Bernardino Evaristo 'Girl, woman, other' Hamish Hamilton, 2019, pp464, £16.99.
Are novels solutions or distractions? Here are two from 2019 - both imaginative responses to contemporary ideas. Both concern ‘the other’, but from different perspectives and in different styles. Both concern the issue of separatism, our fragmenting world.
How might an alternative - a dissenting, challenging view - be written? How might a novel in our current fragmented state of political bickering achieve a satisfactory ending? How do we get from here to a global alternative, without fooling ourselves into partisan non-solutions (more ‘diversity’ on the board of directors) or ineffective dogmatism? Wouldn’t such a ‘positive’ work be dismissible as too obviously impractical?
The wall is John Lanchester’s fifth novel. He is a widely published literary journalist, whose arguably most famous novel is Capital (2012), set in London and dealing with a multiplicity of issues from the 2007-08 financial crash to Islamist bombs and property prices. However, in The wall Lanchester presents us with a stark condition. In this undated future, a high wall surrounds the coast of Britain - not unlike the security wall of Israel - so that you cannot view the sea from any beach, but have to go up on a high hill to see it. It is to keep out the “Others” - migrants of every description - and is staffed by young conscripts called the ‘Defenders’. The law is that, if any of these Others get over the wall, a Defender (or more) must be sent away in a boat to equalise the numbers. Meanwhile the older generation - parents, grandparents - now universally admit that it is their fault that the world is a mess and so must never seek to give advice to the young, who must now defend their walled land.
This walled world is a narrow one. There is not much detail about how this situation came about - it is like Orwell’s 1984, which is not very forthcoming either about how ‘the revolution’ (if that is what it was) happened.
We follow Kavanagh, a new Defender, as he survives the windswept guard duty, strict training and occasional attack on the ramparts. Kavanagh slowly forms a relationship with another on the wall, Hifa. They visit Hifa’s mother, who, true to form, talks about herself, but not about their times. The wall suffers another breach by well-organised Others and this time some get through. Kavanagh and Hifa are among those blamed and are sent away in a boat. They suffer troubles, including a landing by pirates, and end up being saved by a hermit of the seas.
The text spotlights the first-person narration of Kavanagh. He bears the gales from the sea and reminisces about his parents. Romance develops, attacks occur. When Kavanagh and Hifa visit Hifa’s mother - one of the few people inland that we meet - Kavanagh comments:
… it takes much more effort to think that life is about you when the whole of human life has turned upside down, when everything has been irrevocably changed for everyone … I could tell that she didn’t like it that younger people are universally agreed to have had a worse deal than her generation.
Neither this character nor anyone else gives a sign that they do not see the regime as ‘their’ government - one that they had supported (or rejected). Personal politics is in the dust. No-one offers an alternative to the equation that British means brutish.
The “Change”, as it is called, may involve a state of national conflicts, austerity and the pressure of global warming, which may all have been used as excuses to withdraw into a national fortress, but, as no-one talks about it, we have only our guesses to fall back on. A youngish politician visits the Defenders, but is seen through as an educated liar even by the youngest.
One of the constant aspects of the story is people’s silence - silence as in reserve, secrecy (there is an undercover Other on the wall), the unspoken and unexplored, the dumb acquiescence and the lack of talk. In this future, our current culture of political bickering has fallen to a plain either-or: obey or attack. The rest is wondering about what other people can be thinking. For some readers, such reticence may be a relief from the Twitter world!
Even at the novel’s end, when the solitary couple, Kavanagh and Hifa, reach safety, their saviour makes neither query nor welcome. Inaction here is a comfort. By doing nothing, the sea hermit grants them a chance of survival. Is this what we are left with? Is isolation within a community (with unlimited wi-fi, of course) the system’s only solution?
Bernardine Evaristo is the author of nine novels, including The emperor’s babe (2001) about a Nubian in London; Blonde Roots (2001), an inversion of history, where Africans enslave Europeans; and Mr Loverman (2014), in which a Caribbean Londoner ‘comes out’ after 50 years of marriage. Amongst her many activities promoting imaginative writing, Evaristo edited a special issue of the magazine Wasafiri called Black Britain: Beyond Definition in 2010.
Girl, woman, other has just won the Booker Prize - or rather was joint winner with Margaret Atwood’s The testaments, sequel to The handmaid’s tale. It seems the jury could not agree, as the prize rules say they should have. Someone must have dug his or her heels in, not wanting to acclaim a black feminist over a white one. It leaves one wondering whether the prize is now more of Lifetime Achievement award than the recognition of a particular year’s book.
Girl, woman, other is divided into five chapters and an epilogue. Four of these are comprised of portraits of 12 black women, aged from 19 to 93 - not all born in London and not all continuing to live there. One (Megan/Morgan) even transitions into a trans-man. There is Dominique, who moves to the US to live as a lesbian separatist. She is a friend of Amma, who now has a play on at the National Theatre on the South Bank. “Sell-out,” mutters another friend. But Amma peers across the Thames, not quite believing that she has made it. Even the most militant people can lack morale.
Amma and Dominique met at an audition in the 1980s, being up for roles limited to “parts such as slave servant, prostitute, nanny or crim and still not getting the job”:
They railed against their lot in a grotty Soho caff while devouring fried egg and bacon slathered between two slabs of soggy white bread, washed down with builder’s tea, alongside the sex workers who plied their trade on the streets outside long before Soho became a trendy gay colony.
Look at me? Dominique said, and Amma did: there was nothing subservient, maternal or criminal about her. “… can’t they see I’m a living goddess?” Dominique shouted with a flamboyant gesture, flicking her fringe, adopting a sultry pose, as heads turned. Amma was shorter, with African hips and thighs - perfect slave-girl material, one director had told her, when she walked into an audition for a play about emancipation, whereupon she walked right back out again (p6).
The fifth chapter is called ‘The after-party’ - after Amma’s premiere, to which most of the characters have come. Not all of the 12 are artists; Evaristo’s range of empathy is remarkable. As well as Amma, there is her 19-year-old daughter, Yazz. At college she hangs out with a group calling themselves the “Unfuckwithables”, a term which could make a less po-faced title for this witty book.
Yazz refers to one of the main themes in the text - gender fluidity:
… feminism is so herd-like, Yazz told [Amma] to be honest, even being a woman is passé these days, we had a non-binary activist at uni called Morgan Malenga who opened my eyes, I reckon we’re all going to be non-binary in the future, neither male nor female, which are gendered performances anyway, which means your women’s politics, Mumsy, will become redundant, and by the way I’m humanitarian, which is on a much higher plane than feminism
do you even know what that is? (p39).
Without capital letters, except for names, or full stops, the text flows in and out, without an emphasis on any particular character, but showing connections along the way.
This is perhaps a kind of collective story not to some readers’ taste. Some have said as well that, in its eagerness to cover so many people, the characterisation is succinct to the point of cliché - an angry lesbian or trans-man activist being every bit as trite as an Asian shopkeeper or Old Etonian Tory. But Evaristo manages to add enough detail to alleviate this. As to the style, I found the ‘poetry-lines’ format brisk and clear, with some lines providing the punctuation. (Read the above quote out loud - can you hear the way the last line makes a halt?) Connections pop up everywhere, but no-one is given pride of place - not the good-at-maths city trader, Carole, or her mother, Nigerian cleaner Bummi, or the state-school teacher, Shirley, who was glad to assist Carole, yet still resents her for not saying one thank-you. This is an epic of how people change, in relation to others and their own contradictions - not the tale of a lonely individual, who learns in their apartness.
Here then are two visions: a possible future and the lively present; one with the limitations of a fortress consciousness, which focuses on the national; the other marking personal change on an international scale (London, US, Africa), which does not come down definitively on the side of any one ‘fragment’. The former book does its job by showing what we have to avoid (dystopia); the latter is certainly no utopia, but part of a search. In its combined support and criticism of everybody, it demonstrates an approach - ‘woke’ yet open to debate, not afraid of discussing difference, as well as the tensions of class, aware of wrong paths - gesturing towards a complex unity, a movement.