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Bewildering Stories

Terry Pratchett, Going Postal

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

Going Postal
Author: Terry Pratchett
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2004
Hardcover: $24.95
Length: 377 pages
ISBN: 0-06-001313-3
The jacket blurb on Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal says that the author has sold more than thirty-five million books worldwide. There are all sorts of reasons why Pratchett’s fans are giving the Golden Arches a run for their Billions Served boast, and I’m sure I would hear a dozen different ones.

In my case, I know exactly why I’m a fan. It’s not because I think Pratchett is some kind of modern-day Chaucer, as the aforesaid jacket blurb boasts; it’s not that his Discworld tales are insanely inventive; no, nothing about Depth of Character or Serious Heft Underneath It All or anything of that sort. It’s the sly use of language. I hardly care about the plot or even the characters when I read a Terry Pratchett story. What I read for is the rip-roaring fun Pratchett has with puns and allusions and double-entendres and everything else he can load on a sentence. Chaucer? Nope. Pratchett would be almost Swiftian in his language and inventiveness if Jonathan Swift just hadn’t been such a bitterly savage old fellow. Leaven Jonathan Swift with a little lightheartedness (well, given that the latter was the author of that black tongue-in-cheek essay on the troublesome children of Ireland, a whole lot of lightheartedness) and then well, you might have something that approaches Terry Pratchett.

Pratchett, unlike Swift, is an optimistic and rather sweet soul. Unlike Chaucer too, his characters are not Life. Case in point is the protagonist of Going Postal. The story stars Moist von Lipwig, a gentleman described by the authority figure who orders his hanging as a natural-born criminal, habitual liar, fraudster, and totally untrustworthy perverted genius. Just the sort of person you’d want to put in charge of the Postal Service, wouldn’t you? In any event, in the process of reforming the defunct letter-carrying institution into something The People Trust, our ne’er-do-well is himself transformed into a suitably Upright Soul worthy of a gold-plated statute or two in civic pigeon roosting areas (a minor remaining predilection for lifting pencils aside, of course).

Chaucer would have smiled at such a fantasy, because of course thieves don’t Do It because they never really understood what harm they’re causing and are So Sorry when they finally come to their senses. That’s Pratchett’s optimistic feel-good spin, and while it makes for great, satisfying reading, it’s certainly not Life, as Chaucer would have portrayed it (never mind the famous Wife of Bath: anyone remember just how all-too-human the Miller was?). Pratchett’s stories almost always have something moral and feel-good about them. I’d give every one of his books to my son or daughter (if I had any, of course). No doubt the author would blanch at being labeled morally inspiring, but yes, of course his characters are even if all the thieves I ever met in real life wouldn’t have cared what pain they caused other people because they just didn’t give a darn for anyone but themselves anyway. Enjoy Going Postal instead, where a thief with a heart of gold reforms in the happy realm of fantasy!

So I don’t say read Pratchett for his characters, which are certainly not Chaucerian, or for his plots, or for the suspense, or for the moral imparted with a wink. Read Pratchett for the language. The wit, whether low or high. Read him for passages like the one in which Daniel One Drop’ Trooper, the assigned executioner of our hapless thief, greets his victim. I am your executioner for today, sir. Don’t you worry, sir. I’ve hanged dozens of people. We’ll soon have you out of here.

It may not make you laugh out loud, but it’ll make you smile. And goodness knows, after stories where the heroic torturer eats a piece of his lost love on a cocktail plate or a self-pitying cyber-jock shoots up another jolt or two and dives into Cyberland on an explosion of liberating profanity, we need a few more gentle Terry Pratchett witticisms. I’ve lost track of the number you’ve written already, Mr. Pratchett, but keep at it. I am really, truly, sincerely, and happily rooting for you to beat out that hamburger-flipping non-rival for the Billions Served award. Spin on, Discworld!

Copyright © 2005 by Danielle L. Parker

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