Toploader, the second novel from journalist and Booker prize longlister Ed O’Loughlin, is a thriller, a political satire, a powerful indictment of 21st century warfare and media coverage of war – it is also very funny.
It is set in and around the Embargoed Zone, a sort of stateless territory entirely fenced in by a giant wall, policed by a high-tech military force that controls the Embargoed population’s comings and goings.
Neither side of the conflict is given a name – although there are obvious parallels to more than one Middle East flashpoint – the occupying army refers to the residents of the Embargoed Zone simply as terrorists.
This fictional set-up is populated by an extremely colourful cast of rogues, from scam-running officers, jaded war correspondents, goofball soldiers, double-dealing ‘terrorist’ agents, an embedded blogger who parrots every drop of military propaganda he is fed as an exclusive, and an animal rights activist whose sole concern is the welfare of the donkeys in the Embargoed Zone.
The plot is a lively caper that revolves around the unlikely MacGuffin of an American toploading washing machine which may or may not be of major strategic importance, and which falls into the wrong hands when the corrupt Captain Smith steals it from base and gives it in lieu of payment to his agent within the Zone.
There is pathos too, in O’Loughlin’s depiction of Flora, a teenage resident of the Zone, who has suffered much but retains an admirably gritty resilience.
Satire is the dominant note, however, and perhaps it is the best way to highlight the absurdities of the situation, in the vein of Catch-22 or Dr Strangelove. For example, the army classifies anyone born in the Embargoed Zone as a level three terrorist, by default.
If the army kills a family member by accident, your entire family is automatically upgraded a level, as it is assumed you will wreak revenge – so you become labelled an enemy not by attacking anyone, but by being related to a casualty.
The asymmetry of the conflict also adds to the absurdity; the army’s preposterously high-tech systems, including pervasive CCTV and remote-controlled drone planes, form a ludicrous contrast to the low-tech tactics of the run-down terrorist slum, where electricity is on for an hour a day and the latest way of fighting the occupiers is deploying a donkey laden with explosives to explode pointlessly in front of the wall.
As the plot unfolds, twists and turns that might seem almost silly against any other backdrop seem to work, simply because the fictional world O’Loughlin has created seems so believable and compelling. For all its apparent outlandishness, Toploader has a convincing ring of truth, no doubt the result of the author’s long experience as a middle east correspondent. An enjoyable and thought-provoking read.