i'm just a literary tease, my reputation's on its knees.

Book Review: Terry Pratchett's Going Postal

June 28, 2007

The coolest thing about being Terry Pratchett is that you get to break all the rules. Once an author has written a best-seller or two, the rules gradually become more flexible. Also, it helps to be British, because then you can lay claim to a host of oddities like extra "u"s in otherwise ordinary words and the "say he" dialogue tags construction. If you are British, you can also write words like "strewth," which might strike you as a made up word -- I thought it was a mom-ism until I saw it in Terry Prachett's Going Postal. Pratchett also writes one character, an Igor with a lisp, in barely comprehensible dialect, but since Pratchett is clearly a Writing God, those passages were worth the mild swearing under my breath as I slogged through them.

Moist von Lipwig is a reluctant hero with an unfortunate name and a talent for conning everyone, even the Angel of Death. After Moist's unsuccessful hanging, Lord Vetinari gives Moist two options: he can take certain death behind door number one, or he can become the new postmaster of the Ankh-Morpork post office. Under the never-sleeping gaze of his parole golem, Postmaster Moist must restore the post office to its former glory.

One of the secrets that Moist discovers is an organ designed by Bloody Stupid Johnson. The organ was appropriated by the P.O. when it was discovered it was excellent for sorting mail. The problem? The sorting machine spit out mail that hadn't been written yet, thereby creating a space-and-time vortex. The P.O. switched off the machine, but it didn't stop spitting on the letters, and the wizards said stopping the machine could destroy the universe. Finally Chief Postal Inspector Rumbelow had whacked the machine until it stopped:

"The letters ceased, at least. This came as a huge relief, but nevertheless, the Post Office had its Regulations, and so the chief postal inspector was brought before Postmaster Cowerby and asked why he had decided to risk destroying the universe in one go.

"According to Post Office legend, Mr. Rumbelow had replied: 'Firstly, sir, I reasoned that if I destroyed the universe all in one go, no one would know; secondly, when I walloped the thing the first time, the wizards ran away, so I surmised that unless they has another universe to run to they weren't really certain; and lastly, sire, the bloody thing was getting on my nerves. Never could stand machinery, sir.' "

I marked this passage because it was supreme. First, the choice of words and phrases: "all in one go," "walloped," and "they has," give this passage a fantastic sense of voice. The first passage solves one problem (the letters) and ends with another (why did he do it?). And Rumbelow's response couldn't be better. (And how great is the name "Rumbelow"?) Also, Pratchett takes an ordinary thing that modern readers would often take for granted (the Postal Service) and turns it into something delightfully weird. Pratchett has one hell of an imagination, and I value that, above all, in a writer.

Another passage that I marked as fantastic occured during Moist's conversation with the clacker hackers Mad Al, Sane Alex, and Undecided Adrian. The hackers are having a technical discussion, and Pratchett's description of Moist's reaction to this is a fantastic way to describe the way I feel when people talk about math or chemistry when I am in the room:

"Moist missed the rest of the sentence. Innocent words swirled in it like debris caught in a flood, occasionally bobbing to the surface and waving desperately before being pulled under again. He caught "the" several times before it drowned, and even "disconnect" and "gear chain," but the roaring, technical polysyllables rose and engulfed them all."

Who hasn't felt that way? That paragraph is genius. The metaphor of water carries through the paragraph and continues later with:

"Moist relaxed as the tide came back in. He wasn't interested in machinery; he thought of a spanner as something that had another person holding it. It was best just to smile and wait. That was the thing about artificers, they loved explaining. You just had to wait until they reached your level of understanding, even if it meant that they had to lie down."

Another great thing about these two paragraphs is how the characterization of Moist von Lipwig continues throughout the novel. Moist is a con artist -- he's used to smiling and nodding and letting the person he's speaking with think he's a little bit dumb. Meanwhile, his mind is always active, even when he's not entirely sure what's going on. This slightly-bewildering air follows Moist throughout the entire novel.

What's beautiful about the characterization is that a lot of the details mentioned earlier in the novel are thrown in rather casually, but turn out to be important later. The reader doesn't consciously notice these as they are being mentioned, but later, when that detail turns out to be important, there's an "Ah hah!" moment that allows the reader (in this case me) to feel smart for figuring out the connection and also to feel admiration for the craft behind the story. This is the second Pratchett novel I've read (the first being Good Omens with Neil Gaiman), and I'll definitely read more. I highly recommend this book.

Moira at 9:40 PM :: Comments (0) :: ::
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