Why The Walk doesn't work
Naomi Alderman's latest foray into immersive storytelling is a "noble failure". It didn't have to be.
We rushed to subscribe to The Walk, billed as "a thriller in which you, the listener, are the hero." Written by Naomi Alderman, the Orange-prize-winning author of The Power - a dark and pacey novel of upturned gender norms and revenge - The Walk promised to be an immersive adventure in which we, the listeners, would play a starring role. Alderman has form in this space, as the writer behind the bestselling app Zombies, Run!, which inspires joggers to new heights of performance by introducing the threat of, ya know, zombies.
But while the premise is replete with possibility, it became clear, across the span of several episodes, that this vision is impossible to execute - at least as it's currently conceived. (We are not the first to observe this. As Fiona Sturges put it in the Financial Times, "The Walk is, at best, a noble failure."). While there are moments of satisfaction in the listening experience, fundamental problems of structure prevent it from ever positioning the listener as hero.
To briefly sketch in the plot: a mysterious package is thrust upon you at a train station. You are given to understand that you must transport it elsewhere, for the sake of the free world. A terrorist attack ensues, forcing you to flee, and you are soon "on the road", encountering others who are fleeing from the crisis.
But from the listener perspective, there's one giant problem: a total inability to locate oneself within the protagonist. In order to preserve the "insert any listener as hero" conceit, you, the lead in this story, must remain totally silent throughout. Other characters interact at you, casually narrating your actions as if that's a normal thing to do. To be honest, they don't have a choice; if they didn't, there'd be no way for you to know whether you've actually done something or not. Luckily your companions - a disembodied government voice in your ear; a bolshy journalist; a student who provides some comic relief - accept your eerie silence with equanimity, and work around it to effect the plot.
Besides the narrative difficulties of positioning a passive observer as "hero", the listening experience is one of continual dislocation. As you attempt to map your actions against external commentary from the supporting cast, there is nothing to anchor you in the first-person, inside the protagonist's head. And because your actions are all externalised, there's no element of emotional response. How are you supposed to feel about what's happening, in this terrifying new reality where you're a fugitive on the run? In The Walk, the journey is not an experience - it's just a series of things that are happening to you, as described by other people.
We can admire the attempt to push the boundaries of audio storytelling, because the old methods are effective. We know listeners like to feel safe, to be led by the hand, for narration to rush in when actuality collapses. But listeners also don't know they want something new until they've heard it, and heard it working. We can imagine a different approach that might have come closer, a narrative that unfolded in real time in each self-contained episode, or an internal monologue of sorts, in the second-person, that might allow both immersion and a neutral distance, such that any listener might slip into the hero's skin.
The Walk is not that podcast - but next time, it could be. We just hope the next generation of heroes will do a little less walking, and a little more talking.