April 3rd 2011
Ed O’Loughlin’s first novel Not Untrue and Not Unkind followed the education of a foreign correspondent through a local war in central Africa and was longlisted for the 2009 Man Booker prize. It was a pretty bleak satire, shot through with the same black humour that enlivens Toploader, his new novel, set in a fictitious “Embargoed Zone”, a walled-off area that resembles Gaza, reserved for terrorists and their families.
American security forces are grouped around the EZ, flying drones over it and running raids into it, mainly to justify their own existence, while various news organisations compete for stories that emerge. The people in the EZ – by no means all terrorists, it turns out – are, of course, just trying to live their lives.
Into this wonderfully rich set-up comes Captain Smith, a member of US security forces responsible for running Agent Cobra, a fabulously crooked, incompetent spy and terrorist gang master working undercover in the EZ.
Sadly, because Smith is paying for his daughter’s wedding he can’t afford to fund Cobra in cash, so he pays him in kind: in this instance a top-loading American washing machine he’s found in a storeroom back in the camp. From this chance act stems a series of increasingly absurd misunderstandings that snare the guilty as well as the innocent.
In a sense O’Loughlin is merely reiterating the truth of Lord Acton’s dictum about the corrupting influence of power, because Toploader is a terrific satire on its nature and organisation. The cynical incompetence and venality of Captain Smith and his colleagues will remind you of Catch-22, and despite the technical gadgetry – or even perhaps because of it (in their spare time the drone operators play a game called Bitchslapper III – Curb Sandwich) – the way in which those in power abuse their responsibility for personal gain is clearly timeless.
Toploader is plotted with slide-rule accuracy as the interlocking stories of characters unite over the washing machine, but among the plot’s ingenuity and the deadpan characterisations, O’Loughlin spares time for striking imagery and some rather beautiful writing. Despite this, I’m not sure that Toploader will make any kind of literary prize long list. It is too savvy, and there are too many explosions, but it deserves to sell well.