Friday, September 22, 2017

Books that Shaped Me, Part 7: The Discworld Novels, by Terry Pratchett

This is going to be a long one, because I have several books to talk about. Let me begin by saying that, until his sad decline in Alzheimer’s, everything Terry Pratchett wrote was smart, and much of it was not just good but great. It is the finest satire I have ever read, looking through its elegant lens at our world with a deep and bountiful heart, animated by an engine of righteous fury so elegantly described in Neil Gaiman’s essay “A Slip of the Keyboard: Terry Pratchett.” Pratchett’s anger is always aimed upward at those who deserve to have it rattling their thrones, never at anyone who will be pushed down when they need a hand to lift them. There are too many excellent Discworld books to list, so I will confine myself here to four that touched me very deeply, and that shaped my reading and my thinking early, before I could encompass the whole of the great disc and its many people.

I will begin with Small Gods. It was my first Discworld book. I will also venture to suggest that it is the correct first Discworld book, if someone is looking for an entertaining read that stands alone and does not lose savor or depth without a context to sauce it. Small Gods uses no characters, save for some of the deities, that appear elsewhere in the series, since it takes place long before most of the other novels.

A great deal of the historical, social, political, and religious references and allegories in Small Gods went far over my head when I first read it, somewhere between ten and twelve years old, but the emotional pull of the story was undeniable. I cared. I cheered and groaned and was frustrated and anxious and triumphant at the times intended. Many of the jokes were excellently simple and required nothing but an enjoyment of words or absurd images to make me laugh to myself as I read them. Now, when I come back, I know what is being winked at, what pieces of history are pilfered for their best pieces, what bits of human sin are the villains I am being taught to recognize in life.

After Small Gods, I was aware of Discworld but not drawn in. As young as I was, it had been strange and difficult enough I did not immediately look for another like it. I picked up other Pratchett books occasionally and haphazardly, reading them out of order and without understanding the larger picture of the universe. Some of the books do not really work well when read out of context. Deciphering large series was much harder before internet bibliographies so helpfully broke everything down by publication date and internal chronology.

Feet of Clay was the book that got me properly pulled into Discworld. It was the one that made me get all the rest and read them properly, over and over until I understood how they fit. It is a Sam Vimes novel (my favorite subset of the Discworld), and, for me, it begins the second act of the night watch’s narrative. Feet of Clay is a pure delight, especially for a young person just beginning to like stories that are a little darker, stories with a little teeth to them. It treats with huge and weighty questions about prejudice, about freedom and slavery and leadership, about blood and class and labor, and, as all watch books do, about justice and revenge.

Sam Vimes is character I will always love, and I first met him here: so full of righteous fury, but so wary of giving in to it, so distrustful of easy answers and fast, satisfying solutions. Sam Vimes and this book taught me about the institutional injustice of capitalism and class structure a decade before I was ready to articulate a bit of it, and it was great fun at the same time, magical and cynical and full of wit and mystery and magic.

Vimes is the hero of my very favorite Pratchett: Night Watch, which I think may be his very best novel. I read it when I was fully enfranchised in the series and the world. I had read more or less everything that was out at that point. As with most Discworld, this improved Night Watch from good to nearly perfect.

Night Watch is a novel about revolution, and how it manages to revolve without ever lifting the people at the bottom any higher. We see the particular revolution of the book from the point of view of Sam Vimes tumbled back in time, who knows just how much and how little this glorious republic will achieve. I am re-reading Night Watch now, and I am filled once again with admiration and joy and sadness at Pratchett’s poignant love for people who think they can change the way the world works, and his righteous hate for the machine that crushes the poor and the good and na├»ve between its gears and the people who turn those grinding wheels.

Reading Night Watch for the first time, I was most taken with Sam Vimes, his cunning and his wit and his cynical idealism, and with the glimpse inside the mind of the future patrician, Vetinari, that was offered. Reading it again, I am struck with its astounding prescience born of deep historical realism. The whole book might be meditation on recent history in Egypt and the Middle East. It was published in 2002. It is an always-relevant look at the danger of government turned against its people and the broken dreams of so many revolutions. It is angry and sad and hopeful and beautiful and true, like all of Pratchett, underneath the brightly colored shell of humor that entices you to take a look.

I don’t have an elegant transition, but I do also want to talk about one more book: Lords and Ladies, because it is a fairy story, one which I read early, and, if you have been paying any attention to my writing, you know that I spend a lot of time thinking about fairy stories. It is a witches book, the first in Pratchett’s real golden age, in my opinion. Like many witch books, it draws a lot on theater, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in this case. I missed those references my first time through, which is odd, since I had read A Midsummer Night’s Dream and seen it performed more than once before I read Lords and Ladies.

As a fairy story, Lords and Ladies is thoughtful and deep. It has the bones of terror that good fairy stories need, and it meditates on how stories can trick us. The glamor of fairies is built on stories of blood and ancient right and beauty and confounding style, and those stories trick us into acting against our own best interests, just like they do when ordinary people tell them for that reason. It reminds us, as good fairy stories should, that a loss of wonder in the world is a price we pay for nights that can be fearless, and it may well be a price worth paying.

I have no pithy conclusion here, except to say that discworld is brilliant and deep beneath its constant and irrepressible humor, and my young life was made much richer by reading it.

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