The price of shock and awe?

9 April 2011

ED O’LOUGHLIN has reported from Africa for The Irish Times and worked in the Middle East, and his experience as a foreign correspondent in troubled places was reflected in the subject matter of his first novel, Not Untrue and Not Unkind , which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize of 2009. In his new novel, Toploader , O’Loughlin creates a dark-edged satire on the war on terrorism that leaves us reassessing our understanding of who exactly are the terrorists and who the victims.

The story is built on the skilfully and credibly sustained conceit that terrorism has been corralled and ruthlessly confined to “autonomous terrorist entities”. The wall that surrounds the “Embargoed Zone” of the story bristles with computerised surveillance and high-tech weaponry that is regularly unleashed at the press of a computer key, to lethal and savage effect. This “fully integrated tactical computer network” provides the senior military with “the god’s eye, real-time window that they need to fight and win this war”. The mechanical precision of the weaponry is not matched by a precision of human judgment, however, and the ensuing victims are often children or people with no connection to violence. Those trapped inside the zone are individually rated on a scale that purports to measure their potential danger, and everyone born inside it is automatically considered to be collaborators in terror. Nothing goes in or out without the permission of the military – except, of course, it does, through illicit wheeling and dealing and, in the case of one of those manning the wall, a drunken miscalculation of where home is to be found. O’Loughlin never gives the Embargoed Zone an obviously recognisable geographical location and so avoids the preconceived political baggage that would entail.

The story begins strongly, with a description of a donkey strapped with explosives approaching the fortification, and its inevitable fate is vividly portrayed. This opening scene also cleverly symbolises the mismatch in technologies and capacities between the military and the insurgents. O’Louglin’s writing is consistently impressive in his descriptions of the imposition of military might and its human consequences. He is also skilled at capturing the nightmarish, terrorised topography inside the zone and the conditions that the inhabitants have to endure.

All these central components of the book are disturbingly convincing and linger in the memory. O’Loughlin uses one particularly poignant image to describe the play of children when he writes how, against a backdrop of a setting sun, “high above the street dozens of kites wavered red and white and gold in the last rays of sunshine, each the focus of a child’s tethered dream”.

What is less successful perhaps is the decision to push the envelope in relation to the plot, when satire risks giving way to wackiness and results in the story focusing bizarrely on a search inside the zone for a stolen washing machine – the toploader of the book’s title. This machine belongs to the military and, known only to the evil Col White, hides a new type of microchip of potentially great military and commercial importance. This chip will lead to the emergence of “entirely new types of war machines”, such as “fully autonomous aerial drones and unmanned tanks and combat robots”. These machines will also have the convenient advantage of being “immune from prosecution for so-called war crimes”.

He is assisted and simultaneously thwarted by the equally evil and corrupt Capt Smith, who has stolen the machine to pay off one of his spies inside the zone. While the author is able to generate some dark and macabre comedy at the expense of these two grotesque creations, they do not perhaps sustain the same interest as the descriptions of the entirely human characters fighting for their survival in the zone.

O’Loughlin writes with a concise clarity, and it is clear that he has both the linguistic and imaginative potential to produce important work. In Toploader his greatest achievement is to be found not so much in an entertaining exposure of the paranoid futilities of some of the militarists engaged in counterterrorism as in graphically illustrating to those who espouse the supposed glory of “shock and awe” that too often the price to be paid is the broken lives and bodies of the innocent.