Black comedy filled with deep truths

1 May 2011

In taking the so-called ‘War on Terror’ to an illogical conclusion, Ed
O’Loughlin has written a very funny satire on war and its makers.

Set in and around the Embargoed Zone, a walled-off territory in which
an entire population is branded as terrorist, the story incorporates
many elements familiar to anyone who is au fait with modern warfare
and its reporting: embedded journalists, remote control murder,
realpolitik espionage and a hapless people demonised, brutalised and
pounded to despair.

Had O’Loughlin played his strokes with a straight bat, as he did in
his debut novel, Not Untrue & Not Unkind, which was long listed for
the Man Booker Prize, then it’s likely the novel would have been a
powerful and worthy novelisation of contemporary conflicts from around
the globe.

By setting the story in the near future, however, and giving it a
blackly comic tone, O’Loughlin offers a hellish vision that combines a
dystopian fatalism with a ghastly surrealism.

The result is comedy with dum-dum bullets in the punch lines, so that
the horror explodes whenever O’Loughlin targets a new victim. Chief
among his protagonists is Flint Driscoll, a blogger journalist who
blithely broadcasts his prejudiced opinions on the terrorists of the
Embargoed Zone without ever planting his army issue boots on the
ground.

Driscoll is aided and abetted by the conniving Captain Smith, his
lackey Daddy Jesus, and their inept superior, Colonel White.

Grotesques to a man, none of the characters would be out of place in
Catch 22 or Dr Strangelove as they set about manipulating the
political situation for the sake of their personal advancement.

While the novel is laugh outloud funny, it’s in exploring the lives of
the oppressed inhabitants of the Embargoed Zone that O’Loughlin lifts
his novel out of the realms of audacious farce, by investing the story
with poignant and profound truths about the human condition.

In contrast with Flint Driscoll, O’Loughlin has had his boots on the
ground in a similar situation – prior to his novel-writing career,
O’Loughlin served as Middle East correspondent for Australia’s The Age
newspaper and he has also reported from conflict situations for the
Irish Times.

Thus we get heartbreaking detail amid the headline grabbing scenes of
carnage caused by the latest rocket firing drone, when ‘‘dozens of
kites wavered red and white and gold in the last rays of sunshine,
each the focus of a child’s tethered dream.”

Meanwhile, the daily, grinding struggle for life’s basic requirements
experienced by Joseph, the teenage Flora and all the other inhabitants
of the Zone is compared by O’Loughlin in one memorable analogy to that
of bulls in a bullring.

As Flora explains to a soldier who has found himself lost behind enemy lines:

‘‘There’s a lot of money in bullfighting . . . There’s power, too.
That’s why the Roman emperors spent all their money on circuses.”
‘‘That’s the most cynical thing I’ve ever heard,” he replies.

‘‘Thanks,” she says.

Cynical, funny, harrowing and revelatory, Toploader is one of the most
inventive Irish novels of recent times.