Part of my on-going project to re-read the entire Discworld cycle in publication order.
1991 (or I guess maybe 1990, when he wrote it). Terry Pratchett’s last four Discworld novels (not counting Eric, a short, episodic illustrated novel only later retconned into the numbering system) had been Wyrd Sisters (a clear step up in ambition), Pyramids (his best book so far, with suprisingly deep themes), Guards! Guards! (his best characterisation yet, and opening up a whole new vista of setting), and Moving Pictures (very funny, very well-written, maybe a little shallow). Four books that by themselves could make an author’s CV. And during the same time period, he’d also put out all three (albeit slim) volumes of the classic children’s trilogy, The Bromeliad (which may explain why Discworld itself had become more serious and adult). Seven classic books, in two only two years. To say he was on a roll would be understating it. He must have felt like a writing god.
Which is probably a necessary part of explaining why anybody in their right mind would write Reaper Man. Becauseit’s… stunnning. It’s stunning that somebody would write this. And then that publishers would actually sell it to people.
Oh, and it’s also brilliant. It’s a work of genius. A work of a demented genius, to be sure, but genius nonetheless.
Looking around on the internet, views vary between ‘best book ever’ and ‘utter rubbish’, via ‘mix of brilliance and rubbish’, and probably somewhere ‘all brilliant and all rubbish all at the same time’. Personally, I think it’s just brilliant. But I also absolutely understand why some people might hate it.
To cut a long story short, this is a mess of a book. A glorious, glorious mess of a book.
Reaper Man does a lot of things. The core of the book is a novella about Death (and about death): mysterious beings, which will come to be known as the Auditors of Reality, conspire to force Death into retirement, and, while he waits for his replacement to arrive and kill him, he decides to find meaningful employment in a small rural community. It’s an acheingly poignant story filled with meditation on the meaning of life and death, and resonant both of British rural traditions and of American westerns.
But there is also a sub-plot set in Ankh-Morpork, about what happens in the city when there’s suddenly no Death. This is split into two sub-sub-plots. One is about the aged wizard, Windle Poons, who, in the absence of death, finds himself undead, giving him an excellent perspective to look at his life, and who wonders around Ankh-Morpork meeting some other undead, or honorary undead citizens. This story is mostly an excuse to follow up Guards! Guards! and flesh out Pratchett’s new vision of Ankh-Morpork. Along the way there is a very small, and if you think about it surprisingly risqué, romantic subsubsubplot. This is mostly a subdued story with a bit of weird humour.
Then there’s the other subsubplot. This is about the faculty of the University, as introduced in Moving Pictures (now minus Windle, of course), dealing with a more supernatural problem (and eventually intersecting with Windle’s storyline). This is all-out zany comedy, and centres on combining social and sociophilosophical satire/critique with an extended homage to the Alien SF horror film franchise.
If that sounds a lot to get through… well, Pratchett gives himself less than 300 pages to fit it all in.
It isn’t hard to pinpoint where Reaper Man goes wrong. Even taking a charitable interpretation, the problem is that the novella about Death is inherently short, which means that, to avoid drowning it out, the other concurrent stories also have to be short. This drains them of their own significance.
A more critical reader may also object that only an idiot would think that putting possibly the author’s most deep and sombre work right next door to possibly the author’s most batshit insane subplot could possibly be a good idea.
But they’d be wrong.
It’s hard to say exactly why I think it all works. A big part of it is just that the Death story is just so good. And I spent about the last twenty pages crying. Another part is that the tonal whiplash is sort of necessary – without the rest of the book, the Death plot would be too simple, and too sombre, and probably too sentimental. Contrasting it with utter craziness…. just works. I also felt that Pratchett did a surprisingly good job linking together the only-tangentially-related plotlines, through their thematic coherence.
I’ll backtrack here a little on what I said in my review of Moving Pictures. Reaper Man isn’t just about materialism… or rather it is, but not in just one way. The whole thing is strongly reminiscent of the Chesterton/White/Tolkien buccolic left-conservativism thing, in that it pretty straightly (and uncharacteristically for Pratchett) contrasts the wholesome (though unromanticised) rural past with the horrors of the coming future – whether that’s Simnel’s device or the predator in Ankh-Morpork. And yes, it’s about the stripping away of romance, of meaning, of storytales, to leave the stark matter of the world. But Pratchett gives us three visions of the materialist future, not one: the inhuman, totalitarian, malicious future of the New Death, the capitalist-mechanist future of Simnel, and the hyperreal-consumerist future of the predator; three dystopias which, Pratchett suggests, are all intimately connected. It is this question – what happens when the meaningful life breaks down? that unites the wizards and their plot with events in the Octarine Grass Country. Meanwhile, Windle Poon and the Fresh Start Club offer us an altogether more optimistic view: when their meaningful breaks down – when their life breaks down, even – they just scrabble about and construct a new one for themselves. Whether that’s Reg taking death as a political injustice to be attacked with graffiti slogans as though it were any other problem, or the unconventional romance that’s just going to try to work as though it were any normal relationship.
But maybe what makes it work so well is just that, while it’s clearly a book that wants to say something, it doesn’t want to insist on any one ‘moral’. The best example of this is the way that Death and Mrs Flitworth continually disagree on things, without the author simply insisting that Death, the immortal transcendental being, must be right. Indeed, Pratchett adopts a perspectivist point of view, allowing two or more directly contradictory attitudes to both be equally correct. This is made clear explicitly in the discussion on the transience of human existence – it is absolutely true, from the perspective of the universe, that all lives, short or long, are the same length, and are just as inconsequential as each other… yet it is also the case that, from the perspective of the owner, a long life is in general preferable to a short one. Pratchett achieves the sublime by the contrast between the immense and terrifying and the small and human – he does not allow the human to be treated as though it were all that mattered, as though death and inconsequence and the heartlessness of existence could simply be dismissed, yet at the same time nor does he allow the immense to crowd out or outweigh the diminutive haecceity of life. The mountain and the grain of sand seem to weigh the same in the balance, without inflating the weight of one or dismissing that of the other.
The same even-handedness I think can be seen in Windle’s story, and with the Fresh Start Club – Pratchett does not judge, does not dismiss or praise, barely even predicts… he merely displays.
However, all this is not to say that the book is without flaws. Far from it.
The best of the three plotlines is Death’s; but even this is not perfect. In fact, it’s slow to get started, and it has a disappointing anticlimax – though it’s easy to overlook this in hindsight thanks to the brilliance of the ending itself.
The worst, unfortunately, is Windle’s. This has a lot to do with it being aimless and not really going anywhere; but the real problem is its brevity. The story is so compressed – one third of a short book, that it doesn’t have time to go anywhere. We meet a whole bunch of characters, any one of whom could make for an interesting story even in the absence of any externally-imposed plot… but we don’t get to know any of them. At least 50% of my enjoyment of this plot comes from my sappy weak spot for quirky romance notes even when they’re far too underdeveloped on the page to rationally care about (amplified here, I suspect, by having read this in childhood, when we’re more prone to filling out the backstory in our imagination). And the biggest problem here is Windle himself – not that he’s unlikeable, which might have been an improvement, but that he’s just so bland. Pratchett does the thing he has a bad and tricksy habit of doing, of introducing a character as distinctive and then eliminating that distinction and reverthing them to his normal Everyman. So, just as Vimes in Guards! Guards! is introduced as entirely inebriate, but then gets on with the novel in a state of more or less sobriety, here the aged, peculiar Windle Poons we met in Moving Pictures quickly dies (or fails to) and becomes essentially a new man, a wholely different character. But while Vimes has enough distinctiveness that he can still work sober, Windle doesn’t have enough depth to be effective as a zombie. And again, much of that is surely down to the far shorter span of time Windle has to distinguish himself in, compared to Vimes. So Windle ends up barely a character at all, just a moving set of eyes for Pratchett to look through.
And this is disappointing, because there was a great deal of potential there. I loved old Windle, both in Moving Pictures and early on in Reaper Man, and I think there’s a lot that could be gotten out of an ancient, half-mad wheelchair-bound wizard in Ankh-Morpork. Even when we move on from there, there’s still potential: up above I said that this was Windle Poons, zombie, wandering around and looking back on his life; and that would have made for a very interesting book. But what’s striking is that he doesn’t look back, he just makes a few generic observations about life, some more about old age. He doesn’t feel like a zombie, let alone like the zombie of, specifically Windle Poons. I know Pratchett’s not going to write a whole novel about a zombie’s regrets, but this subplot could have been made so much more effective by just a couple of paragraphs of added content, giving us one or two brief anecdotes about Windle’s life. He’s a wizard, and he’s 130 or something, he must have had some interesting moments to remember. Even if part of the point is that he’s spent much of his life not really living, show us that rather than telling us. Show us some moment he declined to do something. Show us him remembering other people doing something. Show us him having done things when he was younger and then not doing them when he was older (there’s, iirc, one brief comment early on about how he used to go to pubs, but that’s not exactly earth-shattering. Even just show us him not doing anything. The brief bits we see early on of Old Windle’s last days seem far more filled with character than the subsequent novel. Make us care about him as a person. And come to think of it, Pratchett’s world is often bad at looking back, and this could have been a good opportunity to rectify that a little, given that Windle’s lived through the events of all the Discworld books so far, and seen Archchancellors and Patricians rise and fall.
It’s not that Windle’s unlikeable, or even that he’s bland, it’s that he’s such an infuriating waste of a character.
And then in between, there’s the plot with the wizards. This is silly and deletable, but also generally funny, if in quite an insane way, and it develops the characters of the Faculty further, and they will go on to play similar supporting comedic roles in several other books. So although their plot line here isn’t a great literary triumph, I’m not going to complain about it too much.
In fact, that applies to Windle too. OK, so maybe few of the characters introduced in his story will recur, but the story does its job. It adds a vaguely melancholy but slightly more proactive subplot, a more human lead character, and it helps develop the character of Ankh-Morpork itself.
That’s a theme it’s worth mentioning twice, actually. Because this was the first Discworld book where I really felt that Pratchett was starting to think about Discworld not as an excuse for unrelated books, nor even as a loose setting for linked books, but as an actual series of books. Reaper Man has far more awareness of its context that the earlier books. Most obviously, the faculty members introduced in Moving Pictures re-appear. So does CMOT Dibbler, introduced in Guards! Guards! and developed in Moving Pictures; so does Sergeant Colon of Guards! Guards!; likewise, Vetinari gets a new scene. It’s worth stressing how little connection there had been between books up until this point: yes, Rincewind had, early on, appeared in three ‘proper’ novels and Eric, but there had been little more concession to continuity than that. Granny Weatherwax featured in both Equal Rites and Wyrd Sisters, but that was more a case of a borrowed character than a ‘sub-series’ in the later Discworld sense, with little in common in terms of setting, characters or themes. ‘The Patrician’ is only fixed as Vetinari from Guards! Guards! on (though he is named in that role in Sourcery), and the University only gets its Faculty in Moving Pictures (having previously seemingly been intentionally continuity-free due to their high death rate). Reaper Man, then, dates from the phase when Discworld was solidifying into a real place with enduring and recurring characters; and so it forms a loose sequal both to Moving Pictures, to which there are multiple references and the characters of the Faculty, and to the earlier Mort, through the linking character of Death and the setting of the Octarine Grass Country (online resources say that the town Death visits here is Mort’s hometown from the earlier book, which seems plausible (in that it gives Death a specific reason to pick that town), but I don’t believe it’s spelled out in the text). There are also a surprising number of references to the following book, Witches Abroad – I don’t know whether these are call-forwards to a book that Pratchett may well have been writing, or at least planning, at the time he wrote Reaper Man (they were published only six months apart), or whether we’re simply seeing the creative process in action, with several jokes and concepts considered worth following up on (there are also some glimpses of ideas that would come to fruition much later on).
All in all, then, Reaper Man is likely to be a divisive book. I would hope that all can agree that Death’s story here is, at the very least, well-crafted, powerful and memorable – and I would call it brilliant. The issue then is to what extent the inclusion of the other, clearly inferior, material detracts from it. Personally, I’m not sure that it does, or at least, while detracting in the sense of lowering the average quality of any given page, I think that it serves important functions. The Death plot probably wouldn’t have been as effective as a stand-alone novella. So, my impression is that the additional material adds much-needed tonal rounding, from the quirky to the zany and from the broadly comic to the slightly melancholy; without this background, I think the superior plotline would have lost much of its power, and become too one-note. In addition, the ‘filler’ material enriches our sense of Ankh-Morpork as a place, and of several characters in particular, and helps link the rather detached Death story back into Discworld, strengthening not just the book but also the series; and it also, I think, contributes thematically to the book, albeit in a less than crystal-clear way, and in the process lends further power to the conclusion. Oh, and it makes it funny and more fun to read.
Other readers, however, may take objection to the weirder elements as too strange to be funny, too detached to be moving, and too rushed to be exciting, while also objecting to the more straightforward additional material as too dull and predictable. They may also object to the sheer disconnectedness of the multiple plots – though personally I enjoyed the anarchic feel of the book.
So, when it came to this book Pratchett tried to write something really special… and ended up writing something really unique. It’s a baroque of a book. Some people may love it, some people may hate it. Some may feel that it’s a wasted opportunity to write a masterpiece… but to be honest I’m not sure it ever was (if he’d filled out the other plots more, the Death plot would then in turn feel swamped and disconnected, as it already does in the early going). Instead, I think that this is in its own right a masterpiece, if only because only a master could persuade me that a book with this many obvious and unavoidable flaws, is somehow a good book. But Pratchett has. This is a good book. And, what’s more, for me at least, it is also an extremely enjoyable book. And I don’t say that about too many books where a happy ending is that Death isn’t [apologies for the spoiler, but I don’t think this is going to be shocking to anybody] replaced by something worse.
Adrenaline: 3/5. The disconnected feel and some pacing issues (a slow start and a rushed end) counteract the anarchic excitement.
Emotion: 4/5. As I say above, I cried. For some time too, not just at one moment. I’m not giving it full marks only because it took almost all the book to get me to that point, and for most of it I didn’t engage all that much with most of the characters. When your main sympathetic character is deadpan, and almost entirely emotionless, and is, you know, Death incarnate, you’ve probably gone wrong somewhere else…
Thought: 4/5. OK, it doesn’t solve the great riddles of existence and the problems of living, but it does at least ask the questions, and look at some answers too, even if ultimately their logic relies more heavily on emotion and poetry, rather than cold reason.
Beauty: 4/5. It hits some really awesome moments – my crying was as much about how perfectly some lines are given as about their importance for the characters. On the other hand… it’s a total mess.
Craft: 4/5. Pratchett is so, so good in this book. And Pratchett is also so, so bad in this book. But I think that the biggest problems are inherent in the conception of the book that he tried to write, and he’s mostly done a good job of trying to write something that, on paper, looks ludicrous. It’s just a pity that there are a few corner cuts that could have improved the book considerably.
Endearingness: 4/5. I really, really like it. Really. If it weren’t so frustratingly flawed, I would adore it.
Originality: 5/5. If you sent a synopsis like this to a publisher as a book proposal, I imagine they’d either give you a million dollars or laugh in your face. Pratchett can often fairly be accused of skirting too close to second-hand material, but not here. Yes, there are echoes of some folk tales in the Death section, but that’s deep cultural resonance, not a lack of originality. Yes, the Fresh Start club are, while weird, probably weird in a slightly too predictably weird way. But I mean, come on. I guarantee that nobody opening this book has ever predicted at the start what would happen in it. Combine that with the mess of a plot structure and the total point-blank dissonance in tone, and this isn’t a book that’s someone else in disguise. This is all Pratchett, for better and for worse. In fact, while I wouldn’t recommend this for a first-time reader (both because it’s divisive and because it works better when you know the backstory), this may be the most pure concentration of Pratchett’s style he’s ever written.
Overall: 6/7. Very Good. I rate this as the best Discworld book so far, marginally ahead of Pyramids. It is, however, strange, and a mess, and I can easily see how many readers would find it all off-putting. Personally, however, I thought it worked. I think this is likely to be one of the most divisive Discworld books, in terms of quality.
P.S. Old UK paperback editions of this book contain possibly the worst publishing cock-up in a bestselling novel. A key word in large and obvious font was meant to appear at the top of the left-hand page, thus being a total surprise until the last moment (and was in the hardback edition). Instead, publishers ended up putting it halfway down the right-hand page, so that it’s visible a page and a half in advance, draining away a substantial part of the suspense from a pivotal moment. Idiots.