7 May 2011
Midwinter in the Embargoed Zone, aka “The Easy”. A “ghostly green blob” turns up on the ground radar of an unspecified army of occupation, tasked, apparently, with the containment of some form of local terrorism. Mystified, the radar girls watch as the green blob moves into the free-fire zone, where it acquires confirmed mass, tripping a seismic sensor beneath the bulldozed ground which, in turn, alerts the drone control room. Before any action can be instigated, the blob – now identified as a “barnyard animal, medium-sized, probably a donkey” – finds its way to the outer wall of the position and explodes, “vanishing in a splash of violet light and a gut-heaving shock wave”.
A moment later, sirens go off in the guardrooms and watchtowers, boots thunder on metal catwalks, fire-ports creak open and two unlikely young warriors named Johnny and David briefly emerge into the free-fire zone to examine the remains of the donkey and scrawl Aryan signs on the wall above what remains of the unfortunate animal – a carrot still lodged in what remains of its teeth – before retreating back to cover. Meanwhile, everybody argues about what has happened, what should be done and who is responsible, but nobody seems to care very much and, after a period of aimless speculation – “Who ever heard of an exploding donkey?” – and even more aimless bombardment, the military return to their normal regime of politicking and online porn.
So far so Generation Kill, or maybe Full Metal Jacket transposed to Iraq. Something is not right, however, in this Embargoed Zone for, although the place appears to be teeming with “terrorists”, the children have names such as Flora and Gabriel, local tender is the euro and it appears that the army and the so-called terrorists have come to a rather cosy arrangement about the frequency and nature of the attacks to be carried out. And even though he has not been paid in actual money for some time, the local fixer, codename Agent Cobra, continues to do business with the army of occupation, represented by the cynical Captain Smith and his thuggish sidekick, Daddy Jesus. Throw in a fatuous, self-important blogger named Flint Driscoll, a motley crew of incompetent soldiers and a gung-ho colonel trying to make up for past mistakes and the scene is set for a comic feast, mixing farce, satire and an underlying sense of tragedy in heady measure.
At first glance, Toploader – the book’s title refers to a type of washing machine, offered in lieu of fees by Captain Smith to Agent Cobra, and passed on to West, a local repairman who points out that this particular model is of no use in the Embargoed Zone, where frontloading machines are the norm – is a darkly enjoyable war-com romp. With its ambiguity as to the actual location of The Easy (the world’s first, and best, walled-off “terrorist entity”), it raises some troubling questions about the basic assumptions made as to the nature of order and – even for those of us not consciously complicit with the “war on terror” scenario – the kinds of compromise we make to maintain our own security against the security of others.
It is not altogether extravagant to claim, as the book’s publicity does, that Toploader is “in the tradition of M*A*S*H, Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse-Five”, but there is no real need for such comparisons: situated, or rather wavering nicely, somewhere between satire, fable and shaggy dog story, O’Loughlin’s second novel (his first was longlisted for the Man Booker) should be enjoyed for its own virtues, the most unsettling of which may be its extreme laconicism. One absurdist delight follows another in rapid succession, from Cobra’s attempts to train a truculent and contemptuous donkey as a terrorist bomb-mule, to the insane denouement, involving Smith, a drone pilot named Moon, the Aryan Brotherhood and a grandmotherly agent from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Through it all, O’Loughlin’s cool, distanced gaze holds our assumptions about terror and security up to a queasy, uncomfortable light with an extraordinary and unsettling calm.