Going Postal

I just finished re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal. That’s a rare treat for me, anymore. I used to be a great re-reader; I’ve read War and Peace 2.5 times (the .5 is because the first time through, I skipped all the war parts). I don’t even remember how many times I’ve read Pride and Prejudice; I only know that three of those times were out loud to other people. That’s the kind of hard core re-reader I was. Not just meekly re-reading to myself, no, I had to stick it in other people’s ears.

It’s a rare luxury for me now, though. I feel lucky to get to read books once.

Something prompted me to pick up Going Postal again, however. It was the first Pratchett novel I loved — in fact, it kind of blew my mind the first time I read it. It’s about a con man, Moist Von Lipwig, who’s spared the hangman’s noose on the condition that he become the next postmaster of Ankh-Morpork. It turns out his special brand of lying razzle-dazzle showmanship is just what the post office needs to get back in business again.

Like many Terry Pratchett books, it’s a book about belief; like the best of them, it’s also about a protagonist who knows himself to be fundamentally defective*, and who finds the way to redeem his defect and turn it into a strength.

* My masculine pronoun notwithstanding, I’d include Tiffany Aching in this category. Vimes, of course. Mau from Nation. Not included: Susan Sto Helit, Granny Weatherwax. I think he’s prone to make his women a bit too good (by which I mean morally righteous), even when they’re ornery.

I know Moist isn’t everyone’s favourite (the name certainly doesn’t help), but I have a particular soft spot for him. He’s a liar and a manipulator, and he despises himself for it. But people are so easy to fool, they practically fool themselves, all he has to do is put on a little show. He’s a performer, an artist, and maybe that’s where I feel the connection. Art also involves making things up and manipulating people, making them see the glass as diamond through the force of your conviction.

And of course, the woman he loves is the one person he can’t fool, the one who really sees him — and he wants her to see him, warts and all. Ah, the skeptical love interest, blowing smoke rings in his face! She’s a breath of fresh air, she is.

What struck me this time through was the repetition. I’d read some reviews complaining that Pratchett’s later work is obvious and overstated. Personally, I prefer the later works; the early ones I sometimes find to be so dense with jokes that it’s hard to see the author underneath. I like my authors out where I can see them, I guess. One thing that could be contributing to readers finding it “overstated”, however, is that he does like to repeat phrases. I think, however, that the repetition is really intended as a kind of shorthand. He talks about the glass/diamond ring several times, for example, and each mention is a little briefer until he needs only say “diamond” and we know what he’s trying to say about the situation at hand. And each time he brings it up is different, right? He’s pointing out something else that people are habitually fooled by: money, government, religion, courtship, statistics.

It’s theme and variation. I don’t find it tedious, though I see how one could.

Later books have hit me deeper – Nation, Thud, the Tiffany Aching books – but this was my first, the first time I saw clearly what he was up to and said to myself, “There is a human being there, and we have seen many of the same things.” It remains a sentimental favourite, even if I didn’t find it quite as complex this time through.

6 thoughts on “Going Postal

  1. I love Going Postal, for mostly the same reasons. Making Money was a bit of a disappointment: Moist is mostly a spectator, and the reflected sound of underground spirits isn’t very good, which is a problem for a book about money, what it represents and how its used. My other big favorite among the later books is The Truth. The Truth Shall Make Ye Fret still makes me smile.

  2. I LOVE the later books (and especially Vimes)– they stop being “humorous fantasy” and just become good books in their own right—Fantasy, wrestling with bigger issues, with a touch of humor. The world really comes into itself.

    After reading later Pratchett I tried to go back and read “The Colour of Magic” again (I’d loved it when I was 12) and… well…. it just didn’t have the depth. It was all mocking fantasy tropes–the characters weren’t as REAL as the later ones.

    I need to go back and reread my favorite Pratchett again… After I’m done rereading Verne, who I haven’t touched since 6th grade. (There are so many nuances I missed as a kid!)

  3. I did a read-through of all the Discworld books a few years ago, and it seems to me that you can spot the point where the series shifts from “parody fantasy” to “social commentary in fantasy clothes” by two things: 1. the antagonist stops being extra-dimensional “Things” (there’s a variety of them, but they all tend to speak in capital letters) and switches to human (or humanoid) characters. 2. The books no longer open with a description of the disc, elephants, and turtle. I don’t have a complete collection, so I can’t check, but I don’t think there was a precise point where that happened, it was more of a gradual change, but if I had to stick a pin in it, I’d say somewhere between Maskerade (which I didn’t like) and Jingo (which I did).

    • It amazes me that anyone could consider Guards! Guards! or Feet of Clay to be more “parody fantasy” than “social commentary in fantasy clothes”. Not saying that there wasn’t a change, and that it wasn’t gradual, but I think it varies more by which sub-series the book is in. The Rincewind books took much longer to maker the shift, the Vines books made it from the beginning, and the Witches books made it gradually.

  4. It’s nice to see that timer function works! I wrote this last week! I am currently vacationing at a hotel with crappier-than-advertised internet, so I can’t discuss this at length this minute, but thanks for all the comments, and I’ll be back to chat at you when I can.

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