Friday, 15 July 2011

Burying the Pratchett

First things first - huge congratulations to my brother, who has passed his final lot of actuarial exams, and is now a fully-qualified actuary!

Second things second - onto the post for today (and possibly my favourite ever post title - I do love a pun, donchaknow). There are a few authors who are not just liked or disliked, but seem to inspire a fervour in their fans which sets them apart from common or garden novelists on your bookshelf. Jane Austen, James Joyce, Angela Thirkell - these are all names which come to mind. And, beating all these by securing such fanaticism during his own life, Terry Pratchett.

Of course, there are plenty of people who like Mr. P a bit, or appreciate some of his books and not others, etc. But there are plenty who think he can do no wrong, and refuse to believe that anybody could be immune to his charms. Their eyes light up at his name, and they are adamant that he should be read by all. I don't think I know anybody quite at this level of fandom in the blogosphere (are there?) but I have met quite a few in book groups and other social gatherings - and Mr. P certainly isn't without his devoted (if not feverishly fervent) fans among the blogs - including the lovely Claire of Paperback Reader, Sakura of Chasing Bawa, and doubtless many others.

Another of his rational admirers is my housemate Mel. We don't have a hugely similar taste in books, but we do overlap with quite a few favourite titles (Gilead, Rebecca) and generally know whether or not the other person will share our enthusiasm for a book. I lend her Angela Young, but I wouldn't bother with E.H. Young. She told me I shouldn't judge Terry Pratchett by his covers (I think all the ones I've seen are awful) and should give him a go - so, over the course of a few months, I read Going Postal (2004).

Going Postal, in brief, is about conman and trickster Moist von Lipwig, who is apparently also in Making Money and Thud! He has been caught, and is faced with the choice of being hanged, or... sorting out Ankh-Morpork's post office.

The plot winds over 472pp. and it would be too complex to explain to the uninitiated (such as I was myself) what golems or banshees are in the Discworld, er, world. Lots of characters appear in several novels, and I didn't really know whether people like Havelock Vetinari, who seems to rule the roost, appear in lots of other novels or not. Almost everyone I've spoken to about Terry Pratchett say it doesn't really matter whether or not you read them in order, and that they can all stand alone, but I think perhaps it would take a while to feel like you knew the world Pratchett returns to time and again.

For a full plot outline of Going Postal, I'm going to be lazy and point you in the direction of Wikipedia's very able summary. The main gist is that the city's postal service is completely useless, and the post office is filled with tens of thousands of unsent letters - envelopes cascade when any door is opened; the whole building threatens to collapse under the weight of it all. The command of aging postman Tolliver Groat and his assistant, pin-obsessive Stanley Howler, does not inspire confidence. Moist von Lipwig revitalises the postal service, and must decide between honest work or corruption - or, as seems more likely, a blend of the two. In the background, there is also a somewhat unlikely romance with the unaptly named Adora Bell Dearheart.

So... what did I think of my first Pratchett read? Well, I enjoyed it rather more than I thought I would. Some of it is very funny - I especially like the Dimwell Arrhythmic Rhyming Slang which does not rhyme, an example being "Syrup of prunes: wig", and I couldn't help laughing a lot at Stanley's discourses on the topic of pins. But... but... I did have a few problems with it.

One issue I have with Going Postal, rather than (I assume) Pratchett's wider work, was Moist himself. Selfishness is the trait I loathe most in fictional characters, and I am never going to be able to get behind a character who is a conman or robber and yet is supposed to be sympathetic too. This is why I can't watch the TV drama Hustle. And the same casual cruelty which I find so unpleasant in some of Evelyn Waugh's novels. Moist has something of a redemption (I love that the Wikipedia article lists the themes of the novel as 'Fantasy/Redemption/Post Office') but not really - he's still happy to trick innocent people out of their savings, and so on.

More generally, I found the whole novel a little too *silly*. I love surreal elements in books, and the idea of a post office which needs overhauling could be really fun. But everything is writ so large; there is so much exaggeration and extravagance, from the fantastical names onwards, that it all felt to me a bit like a schoolboy writing his first over-the-top story. Which was fun to read, most of the time, but difficult to feel like it affected me much. Not every novelist has to address the problems of the human condition (although I daresay plenty of Pratchett fans would argue that he does) but one of my problems with fantasy novels is that they often seem to sideline the minutiae of human interaction in favour of wider, more ridiculous and hyperbolic brushstrokes.

This might all be throwing fuel onto the fire for ardent Prachettites. I want to reiterate that I enjoyed Going Postal rather more than I thought I would, and I'm pleased I gave him a go. Since my book group is reading one of his novels later in the year, I daresay I'll give him another go. But it has not been a wholly successful experiment - the fault is with the reader, not the book; the writing is good, and I imagine Pratchett is one of the best at what he does - but what he does is not what I want, and I shall slink back to my real people in real houses, with only a moderate amount of mail coming through the postbox of a morning.


  1. I think you may have misread some of the ending scenes, or perhaps somehow confused Moist with Reacher Gilt. Moist is not "happy to trick innocent people out of their savings" at the end. The redemption process is genuine, and continues in the next book. What bothers me is the change in how Lord Vetinari is portrayed, which is noticeably different from his appearances in earlier books.

  2. I am a bit of a Pratchett fan myself (I'm sure you'll get a lot of comments from fans on this one!) and your post has made me question the who stand-alone nature of the books a bit. I think the later ones in particular are built on so much that has gone before that they might be a bit in-jokey for new readers.

    I'm not sure how much you would like Discworld though... It does parody a lot of real world stuff, but it began (in 'The Colour of Magic') as first and foremost a kind of parody of the fantasy genre, particularly sword-and-sorcery epics. If you are not a big reader of fantasy, I think that might detract from the enjoyment?

    But Terry Pratchett is very funny, and I'm glad you liked him more than you expected :)

  3. Congrats to Colin!

    I have never read a Pratchett book myself, but then, I don't read a lot of fantasy. I'm like you...I like the real world just fine. :)

  4. Someone lent a TP once but I took so long to get round to reading it that I gave it back unread.
    I agree with you about the covers they cast a spell on me that stops me from opening them. Give me a portrait on a green Virago cover any idea and I won't be able to resist.

  5. I'm an electec reader, as likely to be reading a Pratchett (I try to ignore the covers) as something published by Virago. I have been reading Prachett from the beginning and although I think that it's possible to 'get' his Discworld without having read the first few books, the later ones certainly presume some knowledge of the ones in the middle. The way in which in various of his novels Pratchett introduces new 'lifeforms' to his stories - those golems and banshees et. al. - is not only hilarious but makes their presence plausible and so somewhat less silly. That said, silly is what Pratchett does best, and if I say I turn to his books when I am unwell and need an undemanding read that will make me laugh I'm sure Mr P. himself would not be offended. But they do bear much re-reading ... there are so many layers of references that I defy anyone to pick them all up first time around. Try Pyramids for example and you'll see what I mean. Sadly it is this rich intertextuality that seems to be missing from the later books, no doubt indicative of Pratchetts ongoing struggle with Alzheimers.
    I'm with you on Moist Lipwig, though I'm not entirely sure Pratchett meant us to like him much, and his redemption certainly comes late in the day.

  6. I've only read a couple of books by Pratchett and I have enjoyed them although I would not class myself as a fan. I do not however agree with

    the fault is with the reader, not the book

    If I don't like a book I am arrogant enough (short-sighted enough?) not to ascribe any error to myself. If I thought a book I did not like was well written then of course no blame attaches to the author either!

    Do you really feel that there are instances of the reader being at fault? Perhaps you would like to post about that as I think it is a very interesting premise.

    Spiky Puss

  7. Thanks for the review Simon, as always it is a joy to read your reviews! I read quite a bit of Pratchett in my early teens but can't really remember it now. Should probably give him another try - however, just the thought of an overflowing post office stresses me and makes me want to tidy up so I will probably try another one of his books instead.

  8. Something to bear in mind with Terry Pratchett's books is that the Discworld is so vast he writes about lots of different groups of characters, some of which can be more appealing than others. I was convinved for years after reading 'The Colour of Magic' that I didn't like Pratchett when it turns out I just really dislike Rincewind. The books about the witches, death and the Feegle I absolutely adore, so it might be worth shopping around a bit if you didn't find this book entirely to your tastes but liked Pratchett's writing overall.

  9. I think with Pratchett, it makes a big difference which of his works you encounter first. The Discworld series took a few books to hit its stride, and has lost its sparkle for me in the later volumes. But there's a string of excellent novels in the middle of that series; Wyrd Sisters might be a good one to try. Alternatively, if you'd prefer something set in the 'real world', perhaps the YA Johnny and the Dead or Johnny and the Bomb.

  10. I had a similar experience with Pratchett. Read Hogfather last Christmastime at the urging of a fan in my family. I found it too clever by half; the action was a mess, and there were too many characters faffing about. I'm all for Grand Foolishness, but I don't think this is my brand.

  11. A pretty fair review, I'd say Simon:) I agree with David and think it does make a difference which book you start with. But then I started reading the Discworld books a long time ago and wasn't particularly impressed with the earlier ones which had too many fantasy tropes. But I love the Witch cycle, the Death Cycle and the City Watch cycle in which you do see the characters evolve with the books. His stories have become much darker and more realistic (?) but Pratchett's strength lies in his characters. So I hope you do encounter a Pratchett which will hook you!

    Btw, the telly adaptation of Going Postal was pretty good.

    And congratulations to your brother!

  12. Tamar - might be my faulty memory, as it was a while since I read it! I just remember him still tricking people halfway through the book, when he was supposed to be on the way to morality... perhaps I should flick over the ending again.

    Cat - I was a bit worried that I'd thrown myself to the wolves by writing this, but the fans have either been very kind or ignored me! I think you're right - since I've not read much in the fantasy genre, I'm not really ready for a parody of it...

    Susan - I think the fantasy world will have to cope just fine without us :)

    Annie - thanks for your in-depth comment, lots to think about there. I haven't even heard of Pyramids - it's not one of the ones I've been recommended before, but if its rich in intertextual references, it might be more up my street...

    Peter - as always, you make me think more carefully about my choice of words! What do I mean by 'fault'? I will muse on it, and if my musings prove productive, I shall post on it too!

    Willa - aww, thanks! And maybe this Pratchett isn't for those with a leaning towards tidiness! (a leaning I don't have...)

    Katie - that's a very good point. but I don't think it was just Moist who put me off... hmm.

    David H - Wyrd Sisters is the one my friend Debs told me to read, so you're in good company. A Shakespeare-influenced one might well work better for me...

    Linda - not just me, then :) I love silliness in the form of Wodehouse, as an e.g., so it's not that I'm too strait-laced for Pratchett...

    Sakura - thanks for not throwing rocks at me :) My housemate does have the DVD, so perhaps I'll give that a whirl.

  13. Yo. I'm glad you at least found it funny. I wouldn't say I have 'fervour' about Discworld, I just think pretty much anybody would enjoy them for a cheeky light read.
    I think Sir Terry is possibly the best living satirist we have - certainly the most readable and funny.
    I don't think he ever just writes silly books about nothing, he always guns down a target (sometimes though in my opinion a little too unsubtly and heavy-handedly). This book came out during the Microsoft monopoly furore and I always assumed that's what it's about. Megacorporations, corruption et al (I love the invention of the broadband clacks in here).
    The different species of people on Discworld are used to mirror mulitcultural society and the problems/attitudes people have towards immigration and racism - very deftly done, but I don't think that features much in this particular book. Quite a few of the books are all about that.
    The thing with Terry is that he isn't really a fantasy novelist - he only invented an imaginary world so that he could lampoon this one with great gusto. But I guess that's what all novelists do, to a lesser or greater extent.
    Real people in real houses? You know they're all made-up, right..? ;)
    Thanks for giving it a go!

  14. Thank you!

    I've only read the first 7 Pratchett's, but even over the course of those the style does vary quite significantly. Some of them are, I agree, silly, but some of them get the balance right.

    A Shakespeare scholar like yourself would probably enjoy Wyrd Sisters; my favourite so far is probably Sourcery.

  15. Hmm... I, of course, meant "first 7 [of] Pratchett's [books]."

    Personally I wouldn't recommend Pyramids, I found it the weakest so far, although it does have some highlights (the mathematical camels, for example).

  16. What a coincidence! A friend and I were just discussing TP and then here it is as well!

    I've never read it, maybe I will just to see expand my horizons.

    About Moist, maybe it's about human vulnerability or folly or both? Something like the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak?


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