Ockham Shortlist 2019: ‘The Cage’ by Lloyd Jones
Below is an excerpt from the novel The Cage by Lloyd Jones, which is shortlisted for this year’s Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
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About the writer:
Lloyd Jones is one of New Zealand’s most internationally successful contemporary writers. He has published essays and children’s books but his best known work is the phenomenally successful novel Mister Pip, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007, won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and Montana Medal for Fiction in 2007 and the Kiriyama Writers’ Prize in 2008, and was later adapted as a motion picture. Among his other most decorated works are The Book of Fame, winner of numerous literary awards, Biografi, a New York Times Notable Book, Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance, Paint Your Wife and Hand Me Down World.
About the book:
‘In The Cage, two half-starved, filthy men wearing scraps of salvaged clothing are cast adrift in a place they don’t know, without any identification. At first, they are known as The Strangers, then later as the Doctor and Mole, but we assume they’re migrants or refugees. They are taken into a small country hotel, where the sign reads “All welcome”, and given a room and food. They can’t or won’t say what has made them into strangers. Instead, they build a contraption, “a conundrum”, out of wire by way of explanation. This is then replicated, on a much larger scale, by the hotel owner and his mate. This becomes the cage of the book’s title and the strangers walk into it …
‘The tone is cool, detached and clinically observational. He wrote it in a rage, in indignation, and he wanted it to read “almost in the language of a report, because that would make it much more believable, and you can sort of suspend judgment … It’s the sort of language Kafka was expert at. You think about The Metamorphosis and the very first sentence: ‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.’ You want to say, ‘Bullshit’, don’t you? But because it’s written in language that’s just like a report, you believe it.”’
(From an interview with Lloyd Jones – Michele Hewitson, New Zealand Listener, 22 March 2018)
The Indian summer continues, thank goodness. A last hooray when the sun gives its all before fading into memory.
……..The upstairs windows have been left open. The strangers gaze up at their source of shade. The cage offers no protection, and they enter each dusk with new bands of sunburn.
……..Lately I’ve noticed them rubbing dirt on their skin. This is Doctor’s initiative. I’ve heard him say that they must forget it is dirt. In any event, they are only rubbing onto their skins what they themselves will eventually become. Their immune systems, Doctor believes, are all the stronger for their life outdoors, and after all, dirt has been man’s companion far longer than has soap.
……..Humidity is the worst. Their reeking clothes turn into cardboard.They sit on the log, listless in the heavy air. The trick, it would appear, is not to move.
……..Visitors have come to see the strangers. Why are they just sitting there?
……..The strangers close their eyes and lower their heads. It is the only way they know to remove themselves.
……..A few fat raindrops splatter on the dirt. The breeze is from the west. Two or three drops fall onto my windowsill.
……..It is hard to pick up the strangers’ conversation when rain is falling. Their words are dragged under, especially those of Mole who is softly spoken.
……..Whenever it rains the strangers pace. They do it, I imagine, to alleviate feelings of helplessness. Rain is falling and they can do nothing to prevent it. But they are not human gutters. Nor do they wish to be cooperative like grass or submissive like mud, and so they pace.
……..They pace until one or the other can no longer be bothered, or is exhausted, Doctor it usually is, long after the rain has matted his hair.
……..Uncle Warwick cheerfully reminds us that the strangers are used to inclement weather. In addition, they have shown themselves to be remarkably adaptable. Doctor, whose table manners no one could possibly question, has shown himself also quite capable of shitting in public.
……..They have their coping strategies. That’s the main point I wish to make to the Trustees. We would turn into sodden paper out there. But some sort of defiant attitude keeps the weather from overwhelming them.
I remember my parents planting a banana tree at one end of what we called ‘the farmhouse’, a grey cross-eyed timber dwelling saddled with all the gloom of those who had suffered its leaking roof and draughty windows. Planting a banana tree seemed such a wild thing to do. As though we were in theBahamas instead of these bare hills broken by erosion and sheep shit. We didn’t know this country. We were plot gardeners, suburban in outlook and experience. Still, we thought the soil would bend to our will, and so Dad put the banana tree at the north end of the house. Its leaves were glossy and hopeful. We laughed at Dad’s enthusiasm. He didn’t care what anyone thought. He was planting a banana tree. He seemed to think conviction alone would make it work.
……..I think of that banana tree whenever I listen to the Trustees speak brightly of the day when there will be no cage, or need for one. The catastrophe will be known. Thanks to the strangers coming to their senses and making an effort to cooperate.
……..But, for now, the strangers resist our questions.
……..If they were still homeless and wandering we might know what to make of them. We would feel we knew that story. But the strangers look a bit like us—this makes their silence all the more disturbing. Some of the Trustees are beginning to wonder if they actually mean us harm. Why else would they remain silent? For what other reason are they so unyielding?
……..In their first days of captivity they rushed back and forth across the cage in a panic. Bashing themselves against the mesh. The younger one scraped his nose. When he wiped it, the blood spread across his face, and we all thought, briefly and inescapably, thank God he’s inside the cage. The blood and the wild eyes and that crazy mane of hair.
……..In his charge across the cage, Doctor went more slowly, like an old-fashioned cab, holding up his hands to appeal their circumstances. It became irritating to hear the same thing yelled up at our windows.
……..Then night removed them from view and we didn’t have to think about them until the next day.
There has been more rain. Doctor could just as easily step around the puddles. Instead he splashes through them. Back and forth he goes—water flying up around his ankles—and, with more and more disregard like the same point of an argument returned to over and over again.
Rain. A light drizzle. The birds clutching their roosts fall silent.
© Lloyd Jones, 2018, published in The Cage, Penguin Random House.