By Ed O’Loughlin
Toploader is an occasionally funny but ultimately flawed satire on American imperialism written very much in the spirit of Carl Hiassen. What it takes from Hiassen, aside from the political agenda, is the elaborate comic contraption of a plot that’s driven by a small host of cartoonish characters working at cross purposes, leading to calamitous results. Instead of Hiassen’s Florida, however, we are in a generic outpost of empire, with tanks and drones patrolling an Embargoed Zone (known as The Easy) full of suspected terrorists.
One thinks of Iraq, but O’Loughlin (a Toronto-born Irishman whose last novel was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize) refuses to be specific, and indeed flattens out (or “redacts”) any identifiable features. Religion is never mentioned and all of the natives of the place speak perfect English. This lack of specificity has the effect of watering down the targets of the satire. We learn that life in an occupied territory is hard, and that the American military machine is almost infinitely incompetent and corrupt as well as arrogant and all-powerful, but this is not breaking news.
The plot is an intricate comedy of highly improbable errors revolving around a specially enhanced washing machine (a toploader, hence the title) that has disappeared into the Embargoed Zone. Various people want to get their hands on the toploader for all the wrong reasons, including some high-ranking American officers, a snoopy but stupid journalist, a local criminal type, and a plucky girl named Flora who just wants out of the hellhole of The Easy.
But there there are more miscues with the execution than there are in the plot. Despite everyone speaking English, the direct speech sounds odd and unnatural. In part this is due to having the dialogue clumsily set out straightforward exposition, but it also reflects some perverse ideas about how people speak in the twenty-first century. Several unlikely characters, for example – including the main villain, a military man – are overly fond of saying “oh, dear.”
Worse, with a book like this the arrangement of elements is everything, and it is here that O’Laughlin slips the most. There are numerous narrative threads left hanging, plot points that are unexplained, and too many accidents introduced just to keep things moving along. This is a shame because there are some fine moments, and one feels for Flora’s predicament in The Easy: a place she can’t stay in and can’t escape. Given O’Laughlin’s handling of the material however, the book has to be approached as a very light, at times slapstick, comedy – which is an odd way to address the issues it does.
Review first published in Quill & Quire, November 2012.