My Complete Discworld Reread project marches on!
But what was happening now… this was magical. Ordinary men had dreamed it up and put it together, building towers on rafts in swamps and across the frozen spines of mountains. They’d cursed and, worse, used logarithms. They’d waded through rivers and dabbled in trigonometry. They hadn’t dreamed, in the way people usually used the word, but they’d imagined a different world, and bent metal round it. And out of all the sweat and swearing and mathematics had come this… thing, dropping words across the world as softly as starlight.
The mist was filling the streets now, leaving the buildings like islands in surf.
I’ve been aware for a while now that there are two radically different interpretations of Going Postal’s place in the Discworld cannon. In one interpretation, Going Postal is The Beginning Of The End, give or take a book or two in either direction – the tipping point into the declining standards of the final run of the cycle. In the other interpretation, Going Postal is a wonderful entry point for new readers, a turn away from some of the more tentative novels of the preceding era, a celebration of a mature Discworld that has found its voice at last.
It’s possible that both of these interpretations are true.
My own memories of the book tended toward the negative view, and on re-reading I can see why. There is certainly a degree of broadness here, and shallowness. There isn’t really the depth of character or themes or plot of novels like Night Watch, or even of The Truth (which Going Postal greatly resembles). In that respect you could call it something of a return to an earlier era of Pratchett’s writing, but there also isn’t the zany energy, the comedy, that marked those books. There is a pervasive feeling of familiarity about the book, and I’m pretty sure that it’s not just because I’ve read or re-read 33 of these things by now. As mentioned, the greatest similarity is with The Truth: quick-thinking young man sets up (or in this case revives) new (or in this case old, in competition with new) industry, quickly aquires spirited love interest, faces assassins, and takes on wealthy cabal who want to challenge Vetinari. Pratchett’s male characters have rarely had much distinctive personality, and in some respects Our Hero this time out, Moist von Lipwig, is actually one of the more complex and singular of the bunch: but, paradoxically, the attempt to sketch out a character slightly different from others only emphasises the degree to which he fails. Moist may be a conman, but his voice differs little from that of a slightly more devious William de Worde, or Sam Vimes in a younger and more enthusiastic incarnation. The inclusion of certain repeating tropes in his thinking does not produce a different character, but just an annoyance. And he may be the most colourful of the new cast, with most of the remainder barely rising above the level of stock footage. The setting, meanwhile, is familiar old Ankh-Morpork, but with little of the vitality we feel in the better Watch novels, perhaps because so little of the city actually features – there’s only about four city locations in the entire thing. The Truth hangs over the novel heavily, but Feet of Clay also resonates, and Jingo, and for some odd reason Soul Music (probably because of that novel’s own streak of conmanship (I can’t help but feel that Moist would easily lose in a battle of deceit with ol’ Cut-My-Own-Throat) and because Adorabelle here feels like another, older but shallower run at what he was attempting with early Susan), and I guess also The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (again, the conman-with-the-heart-of-gold element).
In short, Pratchett almost entirely fails to do anything new here. He does some things bigger and some things smaller, some quicker and some slower, but he’s basically playing a familiar tune, and that’s a big part of What Went Wrong toward the end of the Discworld cycle. Around this time, the notion seemed to arise – well, to become mainstream – that what Discworld did was take some real-world technology or practice and write a silly version of it. Cinema in Moving Pictures, rock music in Soul Music, opera in Maskerade, the telegraph in The Fifth Elephant, newspapers in The Truth, war in in Jingo and Monstrous Regiment, and now the post office, the telegraph again, the internet, and modern corporations in Going Postal. Later, Pratchett would have ideas like “a novel about underground railways”, “a novel about the mint”, “a novel about football”, “a novel about taxes”, “a novel about the logging industry”, “a novel about the Boy Scouts movement”, and so on. [Raising Steam, Making Money and Unseen Academicals did get written; Raising Taxes, Running Water and Scouting for Trolls* did not, so far as we are aware]. !Whump!, here’s an Idea, a Thing to do a Bit on, and !Clang! here’s the novel writing itself around that Idea incorporating all the conventional tropes.
The thing is, Discworld was never really like that when it was good. Most of the books don’t fit into this structure at all, and the books that do are either mostly only tangentially related to the subject matter (The Fifth Elephant is shaped by the telegraph in its unique atmosphere, but the book is about much more than that), or are, to put it politely (looking at you, Soul Music) widely considered to not be among the best of the author’s oeuvre.
So the fact that Going Postal seems so clearly to be written around a handful of Designated Topics isn’t a good sign. But more worrying in hindsight, perhaps, is the simple matter of wordcount. I’ve alluded to this before, but as time went on there was a tendency for Discworld novels to get longer and longer, and while Going Postal doesn’t represent any huge leap in that respect (it’s only a few thousand words longer than the last two “adult” Discworlds, Night Watch and Monstrous Regiment), it did end up the third-longest of the books (not counting the last two novels, which I haven’t seen wordcounts for; I’m guessing that Raising Steam may actually be longer than this one, but even so…).
Now, you might say, “so what? What’s wrong with more of a good thing?” – and you’d have a point. It is, I’ll repeat, only a few thousand words longer than Night Watch, which is arguably the best thing Pterry ever wrote. And you might also say “why quibble over such small numbers? Come on, this novel is still only one third the length of a novel by George RR Martin or Robert Jordan! We’re not talking doorstopper here! And aren’t you a fan of Robin Hobb, anyway?” – and you’d have another point. After all, when I reviewed Night Watch I mentioned its relatively slim wordcount, and how Pratchett was struggling to fit everything into such a short book.
The thing is, though: Going Postal is (slightly) longer than Night Watch. And it’s 33% longer than novels like Pyramids, Small Gods, Lords and Ladies, Maskerade, and Feet of Clay. And I look at what happened in those books, and what actually happens in Going Postal, and I don’t feel like there’s 33% more content. I don’t feel like there’s 50% more here than in A Hat Full of Sky, and I certainly don’t feel like there’s almost 100% more than in The Amazing Maurice. Long books are great; I love long books. But Going Postal doesn’t seem to have more plot than those short books; it doesn’t have more jokes; it doesn’t really have much more characterisation, if at all. It just has more damn words. I felt like I was going through the novel at a speed I’d associate with longer, heavier authors, but only actually receiving a story as lightweight, if not more lightweight, than Pratchett’s earlier works. A full third longer than Small Gods? It feels like only half the story of Small Gods! And yet strangely rushed, even as it dragged…
So if someone wants to say: “this is the beginning of the end”… well, I can see their point. The familiarity, the lack of novelty, the superficiality, the indulgent flabbiness… the problems are all here. They may not have suddenly sprung up here, but they’re here very clearly to be seen.
I enjoyed this book. This book was fun. The characters may not have been great, but they were likeable, engaging. The villain, Reacher Gilt, is actually one of Pratchett’s best villains (that’s not saying much), though sadly underused. I’m not exactly happy with such an uncomplicated parody of Atlas Shrugged (not that I want to protect Rand – on the contrary – it’s just that it feels a little lazy), but that does result in a spark of authorial passion that helps provide a little energy and some good barbs. It’s not hilarious, but there are some solid, good jokes. The plot isn’t much, but it mostly works. There are a couple of really great set-piece scenes. It’s more accessible than some of his books, both in style and in content, and it does feel as though it’s partly written for newcomers and a broad audience, but at the same time there are callbacks for the long-time fans, and little gems of wit and erudition and cleverness buried near the surface here and there.
And Pratchett in 2004 was just such a good writer. I know, I’ve said this in several of the reviews, but by now he was really polished. He’s able to transition on a dime from witticism to slapstick comedy, to passages of, honestly, poetry (see the quote at the head of this review), and he always seems in control of his tone, his rhythm, his melody. Sure, he may go in directions – broad in humour perhaps, or sentimental in prose poetry – that some readers may not like, but he does so intentionally.
So on the one hand, you could open the book on almost any page and find several passages worth quoting; and, on the other, you could read the whole thing and hardly ever find a sentence that could obviously be improved. The craft is sublime. And when he turns that craft to a conventionally appealing plot with some likeable characters and some good jokes… it’s really hard not to like the result.
Taken by itself, you could make a case for this being one of Pratchett’s best displays of his abilities; and taken entirely by itself, without knowing of the existence of the rest of the series, it would be a brilliant satirical fantasy novel. It’s only in the context of Discworld as a whole that there is something flat about it, something… unexciting. It has the polish, but maybe lacks the sparkle.
But maybe there’s no contradiction here. Maybe the good and the bad are one and the same. Because if you take Pterry’s talent and apply it to a mediocre plot and mediocre characters with mediocre jokes, you’ll get something it’s very hard not to like, and I know it, and you know it, and I suspect that probably he knew it too, and that’s a very dangerous place for an author to be. Maybe an easy way to sum up why Discworld fades at the end is simply that Pterry got to a point where he was able to be good enough without pushing himself too hard, so perhaps he didn’t. Perhaps, for instance, he spent more time pushing his Messages – both Monstrous Regiment and Going Postal are very Message-y books, for instance, in a way that’s sometimes frankly a bit too on-the-nose. Although, to be fair, Pratchett’s excoriation of the “fairy dream” of modern finance (‘it had not exactly been gold, or even the promise of gold, but more like the fantasy of gold, the fairy dream that the gold is there, at the end of the rainbow, and will be there forever, provided, naturally, that you don’t go and look. This is called finance.) probably read as much less on-the-nose in the heady days of 2004 than it does in 2016, 8 years after the financial crash…
Anyway, I can only end by going back to the beginning. Maybe this is the beginning of the end. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a very good book in its own right. It may not have, for example, the earnest authenticity of The Truth, or the character-specificity, and ingenuity, of Feet of Clay. But it does have continual, page-by-page, sustained quality.
[And yes, although it’s late in the series, it’s not a bad book for new or casual readers. And its relatively standalone nature and its political relevance will probably mean that it’s a common first Discworld. There are certainly worse gateway books.]
*I have always thought that the idea of Scouting for Trolls was awful. I do not see either how the boy scouts are sufficiently interesting for a novel (which I suppose Pterry probably concluded in the end himself, as he never finished the book and used sections of it elsewhere), or how they really fit that well into the ethos of Discworld (although of course that could be levelled at several things found in later Discworld installments).
Nonetheless, I do now regret that he didn’t finish it, simply because the committee that founded Ankh-Morpork’s scouting movement included Miss Alice Band, professional Stealth Archaeologist and teacher at the Assassin’s Guild. I’d give a lot for a novel in which Miss Band was a main character. Plus, Carrot was on that committee too, which would give a fascinating relationship with Miss Band in its own right, but might also give us the sight of Angua and Miss Band interacting, which would be… worth watching. But, not to be!
Adrenaline: 3/5. Given a tense plot and some effective scenes, it could maybe be higher… but given a more leisurely pace and the lack of any real sense of menace or threat, it isn’t. Credit goes, however, to a really effective piece of narrative stage magic: when an obvious how-will-he-get-out-of-that? situation arises, the protagonist very carefully points out to the reader how his audience is foolish for expecting some magical solution because the problem as posed is impossible… and yet as the author’s audience, we hear that, and go on waiting to see how the author solves the insoluble problem. It’s as though he says to us: “look, I have nothing up my sleeves…”
Emotion: 2/5. Just didn’t engage emotionally with this, except for the rather manipulative ending, which I felt was not fully earned, and didn’t really completely work.
Thought: 3/5. The magic trick element keeps the audience thinking, but there’s not a lot here in the way of provocative thought, or mystery.
Beauty: 5/5. If you love Pratchett’s prose, you’ll love Pratchett’s prose. If nothing else, the slacker pace and longer wordcount allow for perhaps a few more poetic asides; and while I might not have bought the ending either qua plot resolution or qua emotional bomb, I completely buy it as beautiful idea. It’s not the only one in this book, either. The beginning of the book, the image of the dead ships sailing perpetually under the currents, is a famous example of one of Pratchett’s technically-false-but-too-beautiful-to-be-wrong conceits.
Craft: 5/5. I may not have been blown away, but it’s hard to point to anything concrete that the author did wrong. Even great authors will have some works that just don’t really have that spark of inspiration; and for an uninspired and over-familiar work, Going Postal is way better than it ought to be, by virtue of Pratchett’s skill and talent.
Endearingness: 3/5. It’s a Discworld novel, so it’s likeable. But I’ve never loved it, and though it was better than I remembered I probably never will love it. Why love this book rather than any of his others?
Originality: 2/5. Borrows heavily both from himself and from other sources.
OVERALL: 5/7. GOOD. What it says. I don’t think that this stands out as one of Pratchett’s best. On the other hand, not only is even the worst Pratchett still enjoyable, but this is nowhere near his worst. This is a really solid, slick, enjoyable-on-many-levels entry from a time when the author’s abilities, if not always his judgement, were unimpeachable. It’s a good book.