At Sea in a Sieve

This essay is the second in a series of four short essays that I wrote for the National Post’s Afterword section.

Fiction writers dramatize ideas with faulty, hungry characters, mysterious even to themselves. Novelists spy on their characters. Narration is a form of surveillance.

You might say that novelists, like internet providers, use “encryption” – a form of sub-textual, coded messaging that will pulse beneath the surfaces of our stories. It’s a writer’s job to create a private world for our characters, while shining a probe into their private intrigues.

My most recent novel, Mr. Jones, could be loosely described as a Communist spy novel. The story is set mostly in Toronto and Ottawa, in the years 1946 to 1962: just after WWII, and ending with the Cuban Missile Crisis. The eponymous Mr. Emmett Jones has been a fictional pilot with Bomber Command responsible for firebombing many thousands of German civilians. Come peacetime, he doesn’t know how to live with himself.

This moral dilemma is set in the paranoid peace of the 1950s, not long after the U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on Japan. It was the Cold War, and the McCarthy era. Justifiably paranoid: there really were Soviet spies in the Canadian government, as Igor Gouzenko revealed in 1945. And in turn, the RCMP (and the FBI) really did (and does, and will) spy on Canadian citizens.

Mr. Jones was first inspired by the tragic story of Herbert Norman, the Canadian diplomat investigated by the RCMP and the FBI until he apparently killed himself by jumping off a building in 1957, in Cairo, where he was working with Lester Pearson on the Suez Crisis. He remains an oddly suspenseful historical figure. Some people maintain that he killed himself because he was a victim of McCarthy style bullying by the American and Canadian police; others speculate that he was a homosexual (or a Communist) and so was a potential target for blackmail during a highly charged UN military police action, which would lead him either to suicide or to be murdered. Though he was a Canadian citizen, the Canadian government didn’t protect him from international surveillance.

Thanks to Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks, and since the media giant News International got busted for phone hacking and email leaking in the UK, we have come to recognize that we float like Edward Lear’s insouciant Jumblies who went to sea in a sieve, our tiny porous existence miraculously afloat in an oceanic internet consciousness.

Recently we’ve had the fiasco of Bill C-30, the absurdly named “Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act,” and now we’re watching to see how Bill C-13, the “Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act,” opens our lives to surveillance. In our sorrow over two murders of our military at home in Canada, there have been immediate reactions in favour of “giving up” our privacy in the name of national security.

But remember: these are young men who needed to live a fantasy. We must never forget the power of the imagination, and the need for community, for a national culture that will foster creativity, and lead to stories that will generate life rather than psychosis and death.