South Park Self

The fifth elephant in the room

The latest Discworld novel, Snuff, is out: my copy arrived yesterday, and I spent the evening flat on the sofa devouring it. It's one in the Vimes series, and my ongoing state of more or less drooling Pratchett fangirliness means I prepared for it by re-reading the entirety of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch novels over the last two weeks, from Guards! Guards! onwards, in mostly chronological order. (Strict chronological order is actually not possible, one of them being a time-travel novel, and in fact going back to Guards! Guards! after Night Watch was unexpectedly illuminating. But I digress).

For me Ankh-Morpork is Pratchett's greatest creation, the central trope of the Discworld - a multi-centuried, unabashed urban sprawl whose existence adds point and ferocity to his ongoing cultural critique. The city is the means by which he deconstructs not only the limp utopianism of mainstream fantasy, but issues of human fallibility, good and evil and the impossibility of their simplicity in a complicated modern world. I cherish an affection for the wizards and for Moist von Lipwig (partially, I think, because Going Postal has such an elegant plot), but Vimes is the sword-point of the Ankh-Morpork stories. He's an amazing construct, even more so than Moist because he's older, more experienced, the accumulation of a particularly driven and compelling experience of hardship, disillusionment and redemption.

He has also matured beautifully over the Watch series - reading them all together like that makes you appreciate not just the development of the character, but the development of Pratchett's style and punch; moments in the first couple of novels falter, but the voice and purpose are always strong and true. The Watch series steadily grows in sophistication and believability, peaking in the essentially political explorations of power and agency and race in Fifth Elephant and Nightwatch and Thud. (I also love the Watch presence in Monstrous Regiment, but it's an outsider perspective on a cameo appearance). Thud also dealt beautifully with Vimes's new fatherhood status, and I was really looking forward to seeing where that went as Young Sam grew up.

And yet that concentrated re-read is also a worrying perspective: my expectations of Snuff were tinged with concern even before I cracked it open. I also re-read Unseen Academicals, the last adult Discworld novel before Snuff; it's an Ankh-Morpork novel, but not a Watch novel, and it represents, I think, a drop-off. The story, and the fun poked at football and the University, are entertaining and real, but the novel feels scattered and overstuffed, its themes and ideas all over the place and not always properly developed. (The whole Jools/modelling/dwarf armour bit? very funny, but I'm not sure what it's doing there). It felt like Pratchett, though; the prose and bite and people were unmistakeable, clearly the master driving the stagecoach even if the horses were tending to shy and bolt and the whole equipage threatened at some moments to career off the road at a tight corner.

Snuff didn't actually feel like Pratchett. It was clearly a Pratchett plot, pillorying the aristocracy with verve and accuracy, and continuing the novels' ongoing exploration of race and prejudice. (One of its more amusing, if sadly under-developed, intertexts is Jane Austen). But the prose isn't Pratchett, and nor, more tragically, are the characters. I barely recognised Vimes; he has a hesitation, an internal lack of certainty which feel simply wrong, and his relationship with Sibyl, hitherto always a matter more of implication than of actual representation, is over-described, verging on the mawkish. Young Sam becomes an excuse for toilet humour, which the Discworld has up until now always mercifully relegated to glancing suggestion. I don't associate Pratchett with obvious fart jokes, nor do I wish to.

And this last, like the Vimes/Sybil relationship, comes down, quite simply, to writing: it's not the story elements that are the problem, it's how they're handled. Pratchett's prose has always been restrained and muscular, his comic timing dependent on perfect control, language welded to purpose. There's none of that here. The prose frankly wanders; characters go off into long speeches, which is the antithesis of the punchy and economical storytelling of earlier novels. We are continually given exposition which describes characters' internal life rather than, as before, being able to apprehend it through their actions. I itched, while reading, to go through a lot of these sentences and reduce them to actual Pratchett with a red pen. He's in there somewhere, but only in momentary glimmers.

And, of course, the giant world-supporting elephant in the room is Pratchett's illness. I love this man and his books. His world and ideas have given me enormous amounts of unalloyed pleasure and insight, as they have to his huge fandom at large. I have lost count of the number of times I have read the Discworld novels; I will return to them for the rest of my life. And it's precisely this affection and respect which make it difficult to simply say that the Alzheimers is, of course, making a difference: that this is not the Pratchett we knew. If you read across random reviews of the last few novels there's a reticence in them which skirts around the idea of a loss of control. He is no longer able to type now, he dictates to a typist; that has to, surely, change the nature of your relationship with the words? But to come out and say that he's losing his grip on the literary magic feels like a betrayal of the novels' comic status, an admission of the tragedy of his illness which, by being spoken, becomes all too real.

And I deny that. If the Discworld stands for anything, it's for using the twin lenses of fantasy and comedy to look reality firmly in the face. I will not pretend that this novel is up to Pratchett's usual standard as a way of pretending that, as his readers, we are not confronting the horribly unjust reality of his disintegration. We are. To deny that loss is to betray the integrity of the man and his creation.

I will continue to buy anything Pratchett writes for as long as he cares to go on writing. I will do it because he's Pratchett; I will read his books for the occasional moment when the unalloyed man shines through, when the prose and punch rise out of the wandering and click into place. I will mourn when he stops writing - hell, I'm crying as I write this - but the reality is that to read this novel is already to mourn.
  • Current Mood: sad loss
Thank you - felt like a eulogy writing it, actually. I don't usually get that over-emotional about a disappointing novel, but of course this is infinitely more complicated than that.
Seconded. You think of all the undeserving idiots and bastards in the world who are in the pink of health, and you want to believe in God just so you can hate him.
Just... yes, to everything including the crying.

I read through Snuff very fast, partly intentionally---I was trying not to pay attention to some things I was afraid I would find there. Only in the initial description of the goblin home-cave and in the "That speech? It's called redemption. Hold on to it." line did he yank me out and made me slow down.

Just... Fuck Alzheimer's, an earlier commenter said. I prefer "Burn Alzheimer's." Burn.

(One thing I will point out: The audiobook of Unseen Academicals felt better to me than the book. I will be looking for Snuff in that format, too.)
Every now and then a sentence gels, and punches you in the eye in the old way, but it's far too seldom. It's horrible. I'm obscurely glad I'm not the only one who is moved to tears by it.

It's interesting that you suggest the audio version, because a lot of my dissatisfaction was because the book didn't work on the page like the older ones do. Oral language has a different shape to written, and the lack of control of the written is problematical while you're reading. I don't really go for audiobooks, I enjoy too much the ins and outs of that specific relationship with the page, but I can completely see how it would help here.
I've felt this same way about Sir T's recent work - felt it in 'I shall wear midnight', which to me isn't as tight and sharp as the first Tiffany Aching book.

Knowing how much creative thinking *I* do in front of a keyboard - if that capacity was taken from me, narrating and reading back to someone else would *not* work the same way.

(I wonder if he could hand-write, rather than type - or is the same part of the brain affected, and would stop him from being able to write?)

Thud, Feet of Clay, and Night Watch remain my favourites, showing the growing, changing watch at its best and most diverse, though to get the most out of them you have to know the Ankh-Morpork canon.

Going Postal, and The Truth, form a second tier: still Anhk-Morpork, but focusing elsewhere than the Watch. They tie with books that feature Death.

Books centered on wizards trail distantly behind, for me. I can't make sense of Rincewind, period. Do you have to be a gamer to get them?
The wizards make most sense to you if you're an academic. They rip the stuffing out of academia with merciless fidelity, causing me thereby a great deal of completely unholy glee. Rincewind is actually more of an anti-hero stereotype, and he always struck me as an early, less sophisticated Pratchett creation - there's not quite enough in him in the way of actually worthwhile traits to balance out the cowardice.

Your favourites are very close to mine - I also love The Truth, and I'm developing a fondness for Tiffany Aching, who seems to me to carry the witches stuff into more complex, multivalent ground. You're right, though, Midnight was also scattered, although not quite as badly so as Academicals.
Academicals improved on second reading for me, I found.

It helped having some of the footie jokes explained, frankly - these had passed me by entirely the first time, as a non-footie person. Who knew 'who ate all the pies then?' was a footie tie-in? (Insert blank look).

And the play between Jools, Glenda and the androgynous 'dwarf', who found his place in the world as a micromail designer (reminded me of Gok Kwan!) improved with review.

But it's not the book it could have been.
you have again put into words what was only a small distressed feeling.

I just finished reading Midnight and Snuff back to back, and they felt like so much falling action - the peak has come and gone, and he is getting all the various species integrated into policing, and Tiffany connected with a young man, and winding things up - there will be a period at the end, and he'll be done.

I'm relieved to hear his process is different, because it does give me something else to blame for results I don't like. But it does also feel like, well, a eulogy.
I felt it strongly in Unseen Academicals; I will buy Snuff and read it, but I'm mourning the loss too. Beautifully written.
I've been re-reading Pratchett too, starting with the witches - Granny Weatherwax always was a role model. There's an elegaic feeling to the process, a wistfulness, so this resonates. Yeah, fuck Alzheimer's.
Hi - I've just linked to this piece for a bunch of people who write and were discussing making nano easier by dictating.They are also all huge Pratchett fans, and your writing is the best I've ever read on his writing and his illness.