Monday, August 10, 2009

Summer reading, parte the seconde: The genius of Sir Terry Pratchett

For the last two years I’ve been teaching an introductory course on literary theory, and as a means of giving the students a sense of different theoretical approaches, I have them write all their essays on a one text of their own choice—something short, 10-15 pages, and it can be a short story, a chapter or passage from a novel, a poem or series of poems, and so forth. Of course, not everything they choose will I be familiar with, so they give me a photocopy of their chosen text.

One of the upshots of this is that I find myself reading chapters out of novels I haven’t read. Sometimes I am unimpressed, but more often it is just enough for me to want to read the whole novel. I have, in the two times I have taught the course thus far, been led to some excellent reads, like Christopher Moore’s Lamb and David Adams Richards Mercy Among the Children. But perhaps the biggest gold mine—or addiction—has been with the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett. This past winter, two students gave me chapters of his work—one from Small Gods, and other from Wyrd Sisters—and I have since then read both those two novels and another ten on top of that.

I’ve been familiar or aware of Terry Pratchett for some time now (it’s hard not to be, if for no other reason than he’s penned about thirty novels since the early 80s and has practically a shelf all to himself in the fantasy section), having read Good Omens, a novel he co-authored with Neil Gaiman. I’d kept Pratchett at arm’s length since then despite loving Good Omens, or rather because I loved Good Omens—with that many novels on the shelves, it could easily devolve into a literary addiction, and lord knows I’ve had enough of those. But then came this past winter and my sampling of two chapters of his work, and the rest is history.

Perhaps this isn’t technically “summer” reading, given that this Pratchett spree started in February, but I’ve read enough of them since May to qualify.

So what is so appealing about these novels? To the uninitiated, the “Discworld,” where these stories take place, is ... well, let Pratchett describe it. From Wyrd Sisters:

“Through the fathomless deeps of space swims the star turtle Great A’Tuin, bearing on its back the four giant elephants who carry on their shoulders the mass of the Discworld. A tiny sun and moon spin about them, on a complicated orbit to induce seasons, so probably nowhere else in the multiverse is it sometimes necessary for an elephant to cock a leg to allow the sun to go past.”

The Discworld, the novels suggest, is a whimsical invention of a Creator who “got bored with all the usual business of axial inclination, albedos and rotational velocities, and decided to have a bit of fun for once.” What this imaginative coup allows is for Pratchett to people his world with everything and everyone, from humans to dwarfs, trolls, imps, vampires, werewolves, golems, wizards, witches, as well as a host of different human cultures and races that resemble those of our own world—and it is in the meeting and clash of these many groups that a great number of the novels find their dramatic tension.

While the novels range all over this capacious world, many of them center in the sprawling city of Ankh-Morpork (a city typical of Pratchett’s playfulness with naming both places and people). Ankh-Morpork is a primary point of contact for these multitudinous peoples and races, and is as such rather deliberately evocative of post-colonial London. It is also emblematic of what I find most appealing about Pratchett’s novels, besides his brilliant sense of humour—all his novels (or those I have read so far) tend to embody a sort of low-key philosophy of pragmatism. The whimsically fantastical Discworld and its often benighted or absurd denizens belie an author with a keen eye for human foibles and a strong sense of irony as a form of natural law.* Pratchett, one intuits, is an anti-absolutist, someone for whom dogma of any species is anathema to a balanced and equitable society. One should not take the presence of gods and such timeless characters as Death (who makes at least a cameo in all the novels) as evidence of a belief in the transcendent, either: the gods inhabiting the Discworld resemble nothing other than the Greek pantheon of competitive, jealous and petty deities. And in Pratchett’s world, the power and stature of gods is entirely determined by the amount of belief people have in them. The gods, in other words, are dependent on their worshippers, and not vice versa.

Like much great fantasy, Pratchett’s characters and situations have much to say about who we are, especially in the fetish of small differences that tends to excite prejudice and bigotry. That those “small differences” seem exaggerated by the contrast between the various species inhabiting the Discworld is often little more than comic misdirection. This is not to say that the novels offer a simplistic or cloying moral that underneath we’re really all the same—far from it. Often the resolution of differences is little more than the adaptation to living with our own pettiness. One of the characters who most embodies Pratchett’s pragmatism is the effective dictator of Ankh-Morpork, the shrewd Lord Vetinari. Vetinari is sort of the ultimate benevolent dictator: everything he does is for the better of his city, and his entire strategy is an elaborate balancing act in which he maintains the common weal not by ruling through fiat but by putting individuals into situations in which they act (a) in their own best interests, (b) according to their conscience, (c) out of a sense of honour or bravery, (d) out of cowardice, (e) out of avarice or personal gain, but in so doing carry out Vetinari’s wishes while imagining it was their own idea.

I tend to read Vetinari as Pratchett’s response to the old adage that the benevolent dictator is the ideal form of government (ruling in the common interest, but with the dictatorial power to get things done with dispatch). Vetinari is both a vindication of this claim and an expression of its vacuity: he carefully avoids the dictatorial power to “get things done,” knowing how that would disrupt the delicate political balance; and he is such a singular figure, one cannot help when reading his storylines what will happen to Ankh-Morpork when he is gone.

One of the problems with writing about Pratchett is how prolific he has been: I’ve read twelve of his novels, and that isn’t even the halfway mark (he’s up somewhere over thirty). The books abound with so many little comic quirks and asides, so many ingenious moments of imaginative invention, and what is really (to a new reader) an ongoing internal logic to the Discworld that becomes more comprehensive with each read, that it is difficult to offer specifics. This much I’ll say: if you like that uniquely British sense of humour such as one finds in Douglas Adams; if you are a fantasy fan; if you like crime fiction (because, interestingly, so many of these novels end up being narratives of getting to the bottom of something); and if you like novels that are almost invariably non-formulaic and surprising—I think you’ll find yourself quite as addicted as me.

So be warned.


*I must give credit for the phrase “irony as a strong form of natural law” to my friend Gregg Taylor; he used it in an episode of his online radio drama Black Jack Justice (episode 20, “Sabien’s Law”). While I would normally be loath to steal phraseology, this one was simply too apt for Pratchett’s sensibilities. Considering that the phrase is used to describe a certain police lieutenant and that one of Pratchett’s most endearing recurring characters is the hard-bitten and pragmatic watchman Samuel Vimes, this should not perhaps be a surprising coincidence.

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