War in a bottle

May 25th 2011

The dramatic opening of Ed O’Loughlin’s second novel, in which a donkey wearing a suicide belt explodes against a huge containment wall, sets the surreal tone for the rest of the narrative. O’Loughlin, who spent years working as an international correspondent in Africa and the Middle East, has made use of his experiences to create an intelligent world informed by contemporary conflicts. Set in a strange near-future, where an unnamed nation has built the Embargoed Zone, the “very first autonomous terrorist entity”, which walls in an entire region, Toploader tells the tale of the incompetent corrupt soldiers guarding the wall and of the population who are condemned to remain inside spied on by drones and cameras.


No element of conflict zones escapes O’Loughlin’s anger, and he uses his book to explicitly attack both the construction of walls all over the world and the news media that feeds off their construction. The absurdist elements that drive the plot – donkey bombs, washing machines, drunken drone pilots and children’s computer games – are both ridiculous and believable. With the notable exception of Flora, the teenage girl who is doomed to live out her life inside the Embargoed Zone, O’Loughlin’s characters are reprehensible and often ignorant. Military decisions are made on the basis of half-learnt facts from the Discovery Channel, graffiti and journalists’ rumour. Soldiers of all ranks are often blood-thirsty but always disillusioned and incompetent.


The journalist characters, Flint Driscoll and Joseph West, do not cover themselves in glory either. Driscoll, a blogger, is no more than a mouthpiece for the military regime that built the wall, while West, a local cameraman, is not above faking footage so he can finish work early. Inside the Embargoed Zone – in the area known as the Easy – the population struggle to get by with few luxuries under the inhuman gaze of drones and computer systems capable of identifying them from thousands of feet.


At times, the satire is reminiscent of Joseph Heller or Thomas Pynchon in the way it embraces the sheer stupidity of the situations it describes, but unlike those authors, O’Loughlin adds eloquent and thoughtful political discussions, which do not disrupt his fast-paced narrative. This is a world only a short step away from our own, and Toploader could be read as a warning about the path many governments are taking by walling in and cutting off some of their citizens. One of the characters here refers to it as a “war in a bottle”, where “blockade and bombardment had become acceptable tools of indirect administration”.