The Cage by Lloyd Jones (Penguin-Random House, 2018), 262 pp., $38
This year’s shortlist for the Acorn Prize includes an anomaly. Three of the titles show an attention to the values of ‘fine writing’ that have tended to dominate our recent new fiction. The New Animals by rising star Pip Adams plays fast and loose with narrative conventions in its exploration of Auckland’s fashion industry; Patrick Evans’s Salt Picnic offers a plot-light portrait of a young female novelist in 1950s Spain, in a style that seems to be a pastiche of Janet Frame; Baby, by Annaleese Jochems, is a beautifully written but simple tale of homoerotic obsession from the point of view of a twenty-something narcissist. The odd book out is Sodden Downstream, Brannavan Gnanalingam’s account of a middle-aged Sri Lankan refugee trying to get to her cleaning job in central Wellington during a violent rainstorm. This piece, which is moving and funny although a little rough around the edges, differs from the others in that it is driven by concern for matters beyond itself. It is unselfconsciously about something. We might call it a journalist novel.
There is a long tradition of this kind of fiction, from Defoe to Dickens to George Eliot and Edith Wharton to Hemingway and Orwell. New Zealand has its own examples in the likes of Robin Hyde and Noel Hilliard and even – in his first novel, Sleeping Dogs, at least – C.K. Stead. The most prominent and recent local exponent is Lloyd Jones.
Jones began his writing life as a journalist. He has always had an eye for a good story, one that looked beyond intriguing psychological insights to external dimensions of the human condition: historical, political, social. He has sometimes, literally, gone looking for such material: to post-communist Albania for the trans-genre Biografi, for example, or to war-torn Bougainville for Mister Pip. There are dangers in grounding one’s fiction in real-life situations, especially those that might otherwise serve as the basis of news stories. Good fiction requires insight into character; journalism, on the other hand, places you in the position of an observer who has a responsibility not to falsify the experience of the people you describe. This responsibility makes projecting yourself into the minds and lives of the people you are dealing with problematic. The more foreign the culture, the more difficult this dilemma becomes. In the past, Jones has handled it by resorting to a number of devices: in The Book of Fame the protagonists are subsumed within a collective ‘we’; in Biografi the narrator is purportedly a journalist in pursuit of a story; in Hand Me Down World the chief protagonist, Ines, is seen largely through the eyes of others, to the extent that Jenny Briscoe, reviewing the book in The Guardian, describes her as ‘little more than a void’.
Jones’s most recent novel, The Cage, is, in one sense, a radical departure from the journalistic approach. It is loosely based on the plight of modern refugees, but it takes place in a world with ambiguous geographic markers and quickly develops into a Kafkaesque scenario that has touches of the surreal.
Two strangers arrive at a hotel in a small town. They are fleeing from a catastrophe that neither can describe. They have no names, no money, no papers. They have previously been part of a much larger shifting population but have become separated from them. The hotel management welcomes them, gives them board and lodging and treats them sympathetically. However, through means that are not entirely clear, they eventually finish up in a cage in the hotel garden, without shelter, bedding or toilet facilities. Here, despite the general goodwill of their hosts, their condition gradually deteriorates until they become little more than animals, wallowing in their own shit (the novel has a Swiftian preoccupation with defecation).
The cage is an obvious metaphor for the plight of the displaced; the hotel for the society that is forced, on humanitarian grounds, to play host to them and to care for them with inadequate resources. The two men are fed through a feeding hole. They are cleaned by having a hose turned on them. When winter comes and they begin to suffer from the cold, the trust that has been set up to look after their needs recognises that something must be done to give them comfort. The solution? A plate warmer, plugged in for a few hours a day (except, of course, when it’s raining) on which they can stand and warm their feet. Much of the tension in the novel derives from the growing gap between the strangers’ needs and the increasingly inadequate attempts to fulfill them.
The metaphor of the cage operates on a second level, too. A crucial feature of the problem at the heart of the book is the hosts’ desperate need to know what has happened to the strangers – the nature of the catastrophe they have survived – and the strangers’ inability to tell them. As the narrator says, ‘There was no bridge across, no language to bring the strangers’ experience into our lives … we were shaped by an event we could not see or talk about – the strangers and ourselves.’
In an attempt to create a bridge, the hosts give the strangers a coil of fencing wire and a pair of pliers in the hope that they will make something that illustrates their experience. They create ‘a ball of wire. Not quite a ball. On second or third inspection, I realised it would be quite wrong to call it that. Nor was it a square or a rectangle or any shape you could put a name to. Yet it was something. It had shape, character but not one we could describe.’
The object, which seems to mean something to everyone –‘Colossal death’ according to Mr Bennett, the engineer – does not solve the problem. Strangers and hosts drift further apart. Uncle Warwick decides on another step: a large copy of the object will be built in the garden. ‘By scaling up “the thing” he believed it might grow into a space for one and all to step inside where they could grasp for themselves that which mere words could not describe.’
This scaled-up version is duly constructed. Festivities occur to celebrate its completion. In the midst of the intoxicated hilarity the strangers somehow become locked inside. Nobody can find the key to release them. There they stay.
This carefully orchestrated transition shows the cage to be not a means of containing a social problem and still less a form of oppression imposed on the weak by the powerful. Instead, it is a complex metaphor for a condition: our inability to fully grasp the mind and the experience of someone from another culture, an inability that is grounded in the inadequacies of language. In this, it is a metaphor for the journalist’s dilemma that has lurked in the background of several of Jones’s novels.
In The Cage the narrator stands for the journalist/observer. He is given the task of watching the strangers and reporting their activities to the trust. Much of the book is an examination of his difficult position. Where do his responsibilities lie? In doing his job, or in following his humanitarian instincts? The trust makes the decisions on how to satisfy the strangers’ needs but it is the narrator who reports those needs. To what extent do the adequacy of the decisions depend upon the tenor of his reports? The situation creeps on, getting worse and worse and, given that we read the cage as a failure in communication, it is nobody’s fault.
There is an uneasy tension between the novel’s two metaphoric uses of the cage. Uncle Warwick’s continued insistence that the strangers will get out once they say what has happened to them is a truism if the cage represents a communication barrier, but it becomes a perverse cruelty if the confinement is taken more literally. This tension gradually stretches the reader’s suspension of disbelief to breaking point.
How to resolve a story like this? There would seem to be three realistic options: the strangers could die, or they could escape, or someone could let them out. Given that the cage is metaphorically inescapable, the first option seems the most appropriate and the second the least. Death, however, would offer a profoundly negative response to the social problem at the heart of the story. Jones, therefore, goes for option three but with a nod to option one.
Throughout their incarceration the strangers have enquired after ‘the woman from the agency’, who later transmogrifies into ‘the woman in a hat’. She seems a myth but, in the final pages, she duly appears and the surviving stranger is released. The novel closes with the image of him disappearing into the distance with a sense not of hope but of the futility of what has gone before: ‘All the while the stranger grew smaller and more distant until he was more a part of the road than he had ever been part of our lives.’
The Cage is an uncomfortable book and not entirely successful but, like its minor partner Sodden Downstream, it is a welcome antidote to some of our more self-regarding fiction.
CHRIS ELSE is a novelist, reviewer and a partner in TFS Literary Agency and Manuscript Assessment Service. He is the author of six novels and two collections of short stories. He currently lives in Dunedin.