Set slightly in the future, Jonathan Raban's ironic comedy, Surveillance, asks serious questions about America's antiterrorist policies.
Explain what you mean by surveillance.
I believe it's the universal infection of our age, and it's been hugely accelerated by the war on terror. Once a government starts behaving suspiciously about its people, employing tactics like the NSA's electronic surveillance, looking at our e-mails, telephone calls, bank drafts and Web sites, the first thing that happens is that people become responsibly suspicious of the government and then they become suspicious of each other. There's been kind of a coincidental rise in the techniques of surveillance brought about by the war on terrorism, so these two things have collided, and we've moved into a surveillance society almost by a process of sleepwalking.
Why did you decide to explore this subject in fiction rather than nonfiction?
What I wanted to do was to take a large, dark subject, but do it obliquely, looking at it through the lens of an ironic, social domestic comedy. I had in mind right from the beginning Evelyn Waugh's Put Out More Flags. Waugh's book is a domestic comedy set only in London and in the countryside; by concentrating on the home front in this small narrow way I think he caught the zeitgeist of those times much more effectively than in his bigger books. I thought, what would Waugh make of the war on terror? In the novel, I tried to take the small, domestic view, not as a journalist, not trying to paint the big canvas, but to tackle it with a more ironic take.
You see this as comedy?
I think this is what needs to be done with the war on terror—introduce some laughs. Maybe it's not laugh-out-loud funny, but it is ironic laughter, the fate of these people trapped in a surveillance society, each spying on the other while the government spies on them while they spy on the government. I hope it's a comedy. One never knows quite what one's written, of course. When the reviews come in, you begin to see your book refracted through other people's eyes. And sometimes books that I felt were funny in the past were taken much more solemnly than I thought.
The ending is a terrible shock.
People ought to be shocked about the brink on which we are trembling now, the dreadful bloody chaos we have created in Iraq. My deepest sense is that the world is trembling on the edge of something very bad indeed.