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.