The Cage by Lloyd Jones.
Auckland: Penguin Books New Zealand (2018).
RRP: $38. Pb, 262pp.
Reviewed by Janet Charman.
I’ve now waited for Godot on three separate occasions and had therefore vowed to wait no more. So when I realized that prize-winning author Lloyd Jones’ new novel The Cage, is about two strangers, locked up for no discernable reason by kindly villagers for an indeterminate length of time, I began to view reading it with a kind of yawning alarm.
Jones’ tale unfolds with all the absurdist provocations I anticipated. There is the odd familiarity of an Erewhon-like setting. There are details of the prisoners’ dietary requirements: as excruciatingly met as they are sometimes left excruciatingly unmet. There are ominous forecasts of weather events to which the prisoners are left nonetheless exposed. And there are strangely engaging descriptions of their banal and zany routines.
From their jailers there is ambivalent recognition of their charges’ manifest suffering – and of their own failure to alleviate it. But the jailers also convey to the reader a sense of the prisoners’ relative insignificance in comparison with the seemingly unarguable precedence of their own, urgent, human concerns. Despite the best and worst efforts of all parties, there then occurs a series of further deteriorations in the strangers’ situation.
It is Sport, the first person narrator, who cheerfully and sometimes morosely chronicles these exigencies. This is not, of course, his “real” name any more than the names, by which he calls the prisoners, actually belong to them. This sense of painful detachment is a narrative tactic that might give to Jones’ readers their own escalating sense of nameless dread.
But about half way into the novel there comes a curious, incremental lightening of tone, felt in inverse proportions to the increasingly desperate circumstances of the two incarcerated “strangers”. And for someone quicker on the uptake than I, perhaps the penny would drop even earlier. For in the symbolic nuances of the strangers’ imprisonment a kind of hilarity can be felt. In every little scrap of detail and dialogue Jones gives, there is an allegorical subtext: A mention of Paris; or of the septic tank on which the strangers accommodation is constructed; the views of the Trustees united in their intent to formally oversee both the prisoners’ welfare and their containment; the stench accompanying various acts of evacuation: Each element of the tale slyly instructive.
The authorial puppetry with which Jones jerks his characters this way and that, invites in his reader a self-congratulatory sense of their own insightful cleverness at “seeing through” his fiction. A payoff of innocent superiority they can award to themselves. Then comes the discomforting realization that if I can penetrate the mysteries of The Cage, I can no longer consider myself powerless to “understand” or change the real world events to which it so bleakly alludes.
Janet Charman’s poetry collection ‘仁 Surrender’, (OUP, 2017), chronicles her writing residencies in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Her monograph ‘Smoking: The Homoerotic Subtext of Man Alone, A Matrixial Reading’, Genrebooks, Dunedin, (2018), is free to download at: http://www.genrebooks.co.nz/