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Write On Ottawa: Laughing at the insanity that is the federal public service

By Alejandro Bustos on December 4, 2013

As federal civil servants know all too well, strange things happen inside the Canadian government. How weird?  Well, if you read The Cube People and Cube Squared, two uproariously funny novels by local writer Christian McPherson, you may never see the National Capital Region in the same way again.

Published by Nightwood Editions, the two books revolve around Colin MacDonald, a government IT worker who dreams of being a published writer.  While typing away at science fiction and horror stories, he has to deal with a bizarre cast of co-workers, as well as hyper-bureaucratic managers who are immersed in cubicle culture.

Which raises the question: How much of Colin’s life is fiction, and how much is based on reality?

“I’m an IT worker for the federal government,” admits McPherson, who has published six books, including three works of poetry.   “When I sat down to write The Cube People I had this idea of parodying my own life ….  They say write what you know and I know about government life …. I also went through fertility treatment, so I know that as well.”

McPherson’s reference to a fertility doctor touches on a key theme in both novels, namely, family.  In the first book The Cube People, which which was published in 2010, the story opens with Colin and his wife trying to have children.  By the time the reader has moved on to Cube Squared, which was released earlier this year, Colin is the father of three kids.

The joy, stress, beauty and hair-ripping frustration of parenthood is captured brilliantly in both books.  Whether it’s finding time to make love while the kids are in the house (a seemingly impossible task), to performing unimaginable acts to help your children (you will roar in laughter at what Colin does to find his daughter’s missing teddy bear), these two works are really, really funny.

“For me, it was easy to write, as I didn’t have to do a lot of research,” says McPherson.  While many elements are fictitious, (the insane teddy bear thread in Cube Squared did not happen), many parts of the book were inspired by real life.  Chances are that federal civil servants who read the two novels will recognize parts of their offices, sometimes a bit too close for comfort.

Given the heavy focus on the federal public service, however, can readers outside of Ottawa-Gatineau truly appreciate the nuttiness that is described in both books?

“People who have gone out and read it have enjoyed it,” says McPherson, when asked how people in other cities have reacted to his two works.  “Even if they don’t work in cubicles they can relate to it.”

But then with a nod to our city’s special connection to government quirkiness, he adds:  “But the highest success has been in Ottawa, and rightly so.”