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John Lanchester’s Fiction Tells the Truth

The British author knows all about self-deception. His new novel is the warning we desperately need.

Photo: Jon Tonks/London Review of Books
Photo: Jon Tonks/London Review of Books
Photo: Jon Tonks/London Review of Books

It was exceptionally crowded for a weekday afternoon at the British Library as John Lanchester peered into a vitrine containing a curious jewel. It was the final weeks of a sold-out exhibition on Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and although the show included the oldest surviving copy of the poem Beowulf, the oldest known Latin Bible, and a variety of other literary treasures, these weren’t what the author was most interested in. Instead, Lanchester contemplated a bejeweled golden reading pointer. In the ninth century, its creator, King Alfred, had sixty of them made to accompany copies of his own translation into Old English of a Latin papal text — a kind of premodern marketing campaign. Its most interesting feature is its promotional self-awareness; Lanchester pointed to an inscription on the jewel that read, AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN — “Alfred ordered me made.”

Lanchester, who is 57, was sporting squarish glasses with his preferred low-key intellectual uniform: a thin, purple sweater accessorized with lint. He had a comment for nearly every other object we saw, elucidating some facet of its provenance or historical significance. When he realized that he was much better versed in Anglo-Saxon history than his American companion, he tried to lower the level of his critiques. “Do you watch Game of Thrones?”

Lanchester’s fifth novel, The Wall, lives just as comfortably between the lowbrow and the high, between instruction and entertainment. It has been compared to the HBO series, owing to some obvious parallels. More salient, though, is the echo of Anglo-Saxon obsessions in our own existential alarm. “A lot of people thought then that the world was going to end in the year 1000,” Lanchester said. “That was a huge thing all across Europe.” The Wall extrapolates the effects of climate change, our own impending apocalypse, following a young man who guards an enormous seawall after societal collapse.

The novel is also about the justifiable rage of young people toward their elders. “The world hadn’t always been like this,” says the protagonist of The Wall, Joseph Kavanaugh, who’s tasked with protecting the border wall, “the people responsible for it ending up like this were our parents — them and their generation.”

How could we not have seen it coming, Lanchester wonders about his own generation, or been so selfish as to see it coming and still do so little? “I was about a third of the way into my new novel when I discovered that I was completely obsessed by intergenerational inequality,” he wrote in a recent column for The Guardian. “Who knew? Certainly not me.”

Lanchester’s writing career is full of such incidental thematic discoveries, the products of a career increasingly rare even in Britain: the public intellectual who works at the highest level in both fiction and nonfiction. Andrew O’Hagan, Lanchester’s longtime colleague at the London Review of Books and best friend, considers him a type of author that no longer exists. “It is an almost 19th-century conception of a writer,” O’Hagan says, “to be known by your body of work, but to conduct your talent as Zola or Balzac or Dickens did, writing broadsides, investigations, parliamentary reports, essays — all of which subcutaneously inform your novels — but which provide a flow of brightness into questions of money, food, culture, and society, things that matter to us all.”

The United States used to have do-it-all writers: John Updike, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion. So, too, did England, with the likes of George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh. But the idea today that one might be, like Lanchester, a first-rate novelist, a mischievous food writer, a skilled financial reporter, a burgeoning climate-change expert, and a memoirist all at once would be generally met with confusion or scorn. And yet, this is precisely the kind of writer we need in desperate times: someone who can go deep into the subjects we would rather not think about, presenting them with both investigative rigor and human pathos.

Something else sets Lanchester apart from crossover literary personalities of yore. He has the ability to deflect — and to notice, too, when most people want to look away from the truth. (He has a “deep sympathy” for climate-change deniers.) He knows where to find the most pressing emergencies facing humanity, as he’s proven time and again with his nonfiction. But, crucially, in his fiction, he also knows when and how people tend to avoid the toughest topics. A central goal of his recent novels — which grounds them in cold reality — is to draw attention to what we might otherwise not want to notice: What are the lies that we must tell ourselves? What must we believe in order to cope with the world? Questions that, perhaps unsurprisingly, spring directly from his own life.

John Henry Lanchester was born in Hamburg in 1962. He was an only child. His father, Bill, was a banker at the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, and his mother, whom he knew as Julie, was a homemaker. The family moved frequently, going from what was then called Rangoon to Calcutta to Labuan before settling in Hong Kong. At the age of 10, Lanchester matriculated at Gresham’s, a boarding school in Norfolk, a world away. Early on, Lanchester began to suspect something wasn’t entirely right with his family, even if he couldn’t say why or what. “My parents didn’t much go in for directly telling me things,” he reflected later in his memoir, Family Romance.

His mother, born Julia Gunnigan, grew up on a farm in County Mayo, Ireland. At 16, she went to a Catholic boarding school to become a nun, but returned home after only a year — and was shunned by her parents as a result. Years later, she wound up in Dublin, became a nurse, worked in a tuberculosis sanatorium, contracted the disease herself, then met and fell in love with another patient. Just before their wedding, he died abruptly. Thinking it was perhaps a sign from God, she returned to the convent and succeeded this time in becoming a nun. After 15 years of missionary work, mostly in India, she moved to London and fell in love once more. This second man disappeared. The next man with whom she fell in love, Bill, became her husband for the rest of her life. Only close to the end of it would she let him in on the central secret of her existence.

Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Bill had always wanted a large family. Julie was already 40 and assumed that she wouldn’t be able to provide one. But she lied to Bill, telling him she was only 31. She used her younger sister Dilly’s papers to get a fraudulent British passport. Fearing her family might expose her, she broke with them completely; in order to keep her story straight, she omitted her missionary work from discussions of her life. Nine years had to disappear. The Lanchester family referred to her deflections as the “Enquiry Suppression Field.” There was an understanding that large swaths of her life were simply not to be discussed. It was only after John’s mother died in 1998 that he spoke to his aunt Peggie. With his mother’s conflicting passport and birth certificate in hand, he unraveled the truth.

There are many things one could say about how all of this relates to John Lanchester. You could argue that it inspired the investigative prowess that makes his nonfiction so spellbinding, that it brought him to terms with the many secrets and duplicities of the world that he shows in his fiction. But it also demonstrates how we are all reticent to know the less pleasant truths of our lives. Lanchester worked through this deceit with both therapy and the partial shield of research and book writing. But, in his memoir, even as he is engaging with his own history, there is a feeling that he is looking at it indirectly. When, for instance, he calls his father “one of the best men I have known,” it comes off as a professional eulogy, not a wholly intimate expression of love.

His mother’s deceptions took a significant toll on Lanchester’s mental health. He excelled in his study of English at St. John’s College, Oxford, but he also suffered a series of panic attacks and a mental breakdown. “The divorce between thought and feeling,” he told an interviewer, “was so complete I barely counted as human.”

Characters with secrets or double lives populate Lanchester’s fiction. His debut novel, The Debt to Pleasure, published when he was 34, follows a deceptive, Humbert Humbert–like character named Rodney “Tarquin” Winot who explains his murders in florid prose. “Tarquin pirouettes before us, gaudy as a firebird,” wrote John Banville in a review, “unaware that all the time his poor, blackened heart is on his sleeve for all to see.” In Lanchester’s second novel, Mr. Phillips, a married accountant who’s just been fired spends a day becoming enmeshed in friendships with strangers, like a pornographer and a bungee jumper, eventually stumbling into a bank robbery. Even in his more idea-driven fourth novel, Capital, about the gentrification and socioeconomic change of one street in London, duplicitous characters are pervasive. The most significant is an artist called Smitty — seemingly inspired by Banksy — who deceives even his own family about his work and identity.

Capital was Lanchester’s first novel to successfully scale up his concerns from the individual to the societal; he had tried with his third novel, the weaker Fragrant Harbour, about Hong Kong and colonialism. But Capital considers the macroeconomic forces of global finance and their consequences on individuals, allowing Lanchester’s journalistic concerns to seep fully into his fiction.

With The Wall, the divide between Lanchester the public intellectual and Lanchester the world-builder is fully dissolved; as Mary-Kay Wilmers, his longtime editor at the London Review of Books, put it to me, “His fiction has absorbed his nonfiction.”

Individual, often self-deceiving humans interact believably, fatefully, with tumultuous sociopolitical forces. But writing about gloomy political events and looming existential threats requires a particular form of self-preservation. By writing The Wall as a novel, rather than as nonfiction, Lanchester was able to confront climate change without looking at it head-on. “Its trajectory wasn’t an argument I was trying to make or a commentary on the world around or anything like that,” he said. “I think the reason for that is actually that it’s very difficult to think directly about climate change. The novel is all the stuff I couldn’t bear to think about.”

Lanchester’s approach is thus an oblique one: Not unlike thinking about one’s own death, he reorients his mind just enough to avoid complete despair. It might seem odd that he blames his own generation for ignoring and exacerbating climate change for so long when, at the same time, he also can’t “bear to think about” it. But this is a testament to the ways in which Lanchester looks and doesn’t look. Decades after emerging from the “Enquiry Suppression Field,” Lanchester still seems to process his emotions only glancingly. “He is brilliantly self-protecting, invoking the facts of the subjects he writes about but not sinking under the weight of them,” says O’Hagan. “He isn’t a performer,” says Wilmers. “Maybe it would be enough to say that he’s got quite a quiet voice — I mean that literally.”

For all of his critical acclaim and his prominence as a novelist, memoirist, and nonfiction writer whose essays for the LRB get “more hits than almost anyone else’s,” per Wilmers, Lanchester goes out of his way to cheekily disparage fame and pretension. At the British Library, when he came across a small sculpture of a solemn monk, he shook his head. “Isn’t it amazing to think of how they conceived of themselves — being able to think of themselves as above all the rest of the world’s shit? Like N+1.” Later, when a man conspicuously approached him and made quick, awkward conversation, Lanchester humbly downplayed any notion that he might be particularly well-known. “People don’t really recognize me,” he said. “Maybe once or twice after I’m on the telly a lot.”

At lunch after our library visit, Lanchester was feeling a bit tippy. He has a problem with his middle ear, and his balance gets worse in the cold. It was, unfortunately, the kind of chilly day that calls for a dizzying combination of overcoats, sweaters, and scarves. He sat at a corner table of the Gilbert Scott, a gilded, soaring-ceilinged restaurant that abuts St. Pancras Station. Lunchtime had brought in a smattering of what appeared to be the foreplay to midday affairs: older men with much younger women clad in seasonably dubious skirts.

Lanchester leaned forward and began to explain how denying the things we can’t control allows for a sense of power — how, psychologically, self-deception makes rational sense. “I have a deep sympathy with climate denial,” he said, “because why wouldn’t we deny it if we could? I want it not to be true.” The alternative is paralyzing. Even if thousands of people were to use fewer straws at Starbucks, drive Priuses instead of Escalades, buy clothes from Everlane instead of Zara — all of this would still likely have less of an effect on the climate than what, say, a single coal executive might decide over his morning coffee. In the absence of tangible certainties, people are more willing to believe optimistic things — that heaven exists; that they’ll win the lottery — than pessimistic things — that parts of London will likely experience severe flooding in the coming decades,or that your own mother has lied to you for your entire life.

Reflecting on why it took him so long to find out his own mother’s secret, even as it was staring at him all along, Lanchester once wrote: “The things you don’t know are very often the things you have chosen not to know.”

Given all that history, personal and scientific and psychological, it’s bizarre to witness how optimistic Lanchester is about climate change in person. At a walk-in-closet-size café along Euston Road, he was remarkably sanguine. “I mean, from the existential-threat point of view, I do think that we’re in a moment of great danger,” he said. “But, actually, the stuff that came out about being able to hold the world to 1.5 degrees of warming, it means there is still hope.” He enumerated a litany of sunny portents: Most governments are cooperative, technology will likely catch up, “young people completely get it,” and “at some point, we in the developed world are going to elect our last ‘denialist’ leader. That will happen. Maybe Trump and Bolsonaro are the last ones.”

And yet, in The Wall, he is honest and ultimately pessimistic. The Wall is Lanchester’s only novel that takes self-deception as not just a character trait or narrative hook but, rather, as its principal conceit. At some point, humankind won’t be able to deceive itself about climate change any longer. The novel’s protagonist, Joseph Kavanaugh, is a Defender, who must guard the Wall from the Others, climate refugees who are constantly trying to break through into relative safety. The novel exposes the notion that some of us might be able to protect ourselves when climate disaster strikes, as a ruse. The only consolation, The Wall allows, is that we might tell ourselves stories with happy endings; we might continue to deceive ourselves even as we’re being destroyed.

Toward the end of the novel, Joseph and Hifa, a soldier, end up on the outside of the Wall. In a moment of particular terror, Hifa asks Joseph to tell her a story. Joseph is at a loss:

I tried to think of one. “Everything is going to be all right,” I said, that’s what a story is, something where everything turns out all right, but I said that and I could see it wasn’t what she wanted to hear. That is another thing a story is, something somebody wants to hear, but my mind was blank and all I could think was that she wants me to tell her a story, a story where something turns out all right.

In trying times — and in times when the utility of fiction itself has been challenged — stories become essential places where we can tell ourselves the truth at a necessary remove. Stories allow us to realize — without crumbling into despair — that perhaps everything is not going to be all right; perhaps there is very little hope. The irony is that stories are also precisely the sorts of places where we might best deceive ourselves — a story being, as Joseph thinks, “something somebody wants to hear.”

Few want to hear the likely and calamitous truths of our rapidly approaching future. While Lanchester in person deflects and looks away, as so many of us do, Lanchester in his fiction provides a space to explore the truth. This we need: Lanchester’s glancing eye, his stories that allow us to pretend toward optimism while seeing the stark, sobering truth of what we’ve wrought.

“The tendency to lodge images in people’s imaginations is the main way you effect change,” he said, bundling up his coat before going off to see the doctor. “That’s how you change people’s sensibilities. Because I think, obviously, the numbers in the data are hugely important and hugely consequential.” He added: “I’m not sure how many minds they change.”

John Lanchester’s Fiction Tells the Truth