Reaper Man : DEATH or death?

Terry Pratchett’s Reaper Man. DEATH or death?

Back to the Discworld for a new reading I, like so many, have been touched by details of character or story which youth and enthusiasm missed, so keen were we for the meat of the action. Returning to these books is like taking on foot, roads formerly dashed down by car.

My overriding impression is that Pratchett is first and foremost a comedian, willing to sacrifice consistency for the gag, for the flow of the story. Ditto in his public persona. Watching interviews with him he frequently goes for laughs. It seems he may well have been like that behind the scenes too. I heard Marc Burrows, an unofficial biographer, interviewed on a podcast (now un-refindable of course). He recounted that part of his decision to write the book was due to his disappointment at having narrowly missed an opportunity to meet Pratchett. He had not been able to go when a friend of his was involved in the BBC radio programme A Museum of Curiosities when Pratchett was a guest. The friend enthused the next day that after the recording Pratchett invited them to the pub where he regaled them with jokes all evening.

To what degree his public is humour a defence mechanism to protect his jealously guarded family privacy, to what degree a genuine pleasure from getting a laugh, who knows? Who minds? Some of his personal anecdotes appear to have thinnish foundations fact wise according to biographers but they’ve become so much a part of his personal MO that one wonders if that matters, a habit, as Marc Burrows points out that he learned from his own mother’s tendency to ‘put a shine’ on a story.

It's not new to say he is also a comic with A Point, if only to “parody the pastiches” *, but often with deeper, more subversive facts about human nature and societal truths lying in wait, like biting into a lump of ginger in the seemingly innocent marmalade sandwich.

I feel this gradually becomes stronger, to the point that his lighter books then feel too featherweight in comparison. If we forget that he’s evolving from a comic writer who makes points to a point maker who uses comedy as one of his vehicles, we end up somehow disappointed, although in my perusal of too many opinion pieces to remember, we tend to add postscripts to our judgements of the sort : "but this is still a very good book compared to other people’s work"; "but I still enjoyed reading it"; "but I still liked these particular jokes/themes/passages/characters/ideas etc"

Reaper Man shows where the strain between comedy and point is pushed very nearly to its limits. Does Pratchett succeed in this juggling trick? Opinion is divided. My own wavers depending on whether that day I should really have stood up and had a cup of tea and a biscuit (I’m of the Weatherwax party on that one) instead of dipping into a book. I need a certain patience for his Wizards, however cleverly they’re written.

That tension starts in the ‘prologue’.

Exemplified in Reaper Man is Terry Pratchett’s use of ‘parody of pastiche’ theatrical techniques, sometimes cod-shakespearean or pseudo Science Fiction in fashion, sometimes beautifully poetic and poignant. (*I have little evidence of him using the even more classic Shakespearean soliloquy, given that he frequently writes from a person’s point of view, they are rarely necessary. The only notable one I can think of is Vimes' heart-broken-by-the-city-drowning-his-sorrow speech following the death of a colleague, near the start of Guards! Guards!.)

The OED defines a prologue as “a speech, etc. at the beginning of a play, book or film that introduces it”.

High on lists of irritation points with Pratchett’s prologues (not always placed precisely on the first page but with the same function) is the oft mentioned astrobiological nature of this pancake world (carried by the turtle etc). Having heard Pratchett speak on his desire for new readers to feel “in the know” whichever work they start on, I can now be a little less grudging on this point. I have long felt the pain of exclusion from much classical art and poetry due to unexplained references crucial to sense. Pratchett’s work is chock a block with allusions too, of course, making his work a rich multi-layered trifle for the connoisseur, but I’m grateful that he does it in such a way that the unfamiliar can still enjoy it in mono. (Yes, mixed metaphor)

He closely ties his prologues in with the epilogues. I find it illuminating and enjoyable to follow finishing a book by immediately rereading its first few pages and always regret not having retained their insight when interpreting the rest of the book.

Pratchett’s use of the prologue in its widest sense springs from a long tradition of the breaking of the fourth wall, handled with more or less skill depending on the operator. The direct comment of Charlotte Bonté’s Jayne Eyre “Reader, I married him” is an extreme example, powerfully wrenching us from the otherwise immersive world of the story. Historically a chorus delivers prologue and commentary in Ancient Greek theatre; Dickens famously starts “A Tale of Two Cities” with the prologue prose poem “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”; The Pantomime Dame dialogues with the audience - “Oh yes he did! … Oh no he didn’t”; The TV comedian, the late Eric Morecombe famously looks with complicity straight into the camera; several Star Wars films start with a prologue as does Star Trek with the “... To boldly go” speech. Pratchett using his narrator’s voice for these things as well as asides and footnotes is generally well tolerated as not too distracting from the plot, it’s part of his distinctive. Though occasionally anyone can have too much of a good thing…

Pratchett’s use of the prologue for panning from a global perspective to an individualised PoV is typified by, but not exclusive to, modern media. Think of a marbles game in the Men In Black end view. However even Ancient work uses it, for example in the poem at the start of the Ancient Hebrew “Beginnings” (Genesis) in The Bible, the progression of cosmology - geology - biology and finally anthropology can be seen as having a similar effect, and functions as prologue alongside The Garden Story, before The Legends followed by the nub of the affair, The Abrahmic Sagas.

Most pertinent to the origins of the way Pratchett uses this device however may, in my opinion, be a nightly 5 minute children’s programme shown immediately preceding the 6pm BBC NEWS in 1970s Britain called The Clangers. Knitted mouse/anteater space creatures lived under bin lids on a knobbly brown planet. With dialogue expressed only through a swanee whistle, now openly admitted to have had subversive and occasionally downright vulgar undertones, it was popular with adults (including my parents) as well as children . The writer and narrator Oliver Postgate would begin every episode voicing over a pan from earth “This is The Earth. A tiny wet planet, lost and alone in the vast silence of space…”* across the universe to the Clangers’ home.

Another famous exponent of the prologue and epilogue was Shakespeare of course. In the “If we shadows have offended” epilogue to A Midsummer’s Night Dream”, “For man is but a giddy thing” spoken by Benedick at the end of “Much Ado” and most notably the “Two Houses” prologue to “Romeo and Juliet”.

This latter, via a circuitous route, brings me to the link with the book in hand, “Reaper Man”. The “two houses” speech draws the attention of the audience to the fact that although they might remember the play as being about a romance, the star crossed lovers are more a vehicle to illustrate the Big Theme, the consequence of vendetta culture. So in Reaper man. Although the rather protracted and seemingly dispersed set of vignettes that compose the prologue are primarily a technique to unify an otherwise rather trichotomised plot …

(*unsuccessfully to my mind this time and maybe to the minds of the fans, to whom Pratchett was very attentive. Later, when using a similar parallel plots technique in Thief of Time he was careful to correct himself by saying explicitly in the text that it’s a multi-stranded plot knitted together at the end) … Pratchett didn’t want his main point to be lost in the foliage of the story either. He is underlining in black and highlighting in pink that The Point for him is not just the character of DEATH to whom we’ve already become very attached, nor Windle Poons to whom we were not very endeared but to whom we’ll discover new depths, but the simple fact of death. Of imminent end. Of too, too frail flesh. Of loss. And conversely, of the joy of life and fellow-ship.

Does he succeed in this aim as fully as he could have done?

Pratchett famously worked hard to live down being written off as just a fantasy writer,* too niche, too lightweight. Here I feel it’s the cartoon comedy of the events in Ankh Morpork, ie the Wizards plot strand with it’s flying cobbles and pseudo-sci-fi mall, that jarrs just a bit too glaringly when paired with the insightful (though still gently comedic) journeys that are taken by Windle Poons and DEATH himself. Plot wise of course it serves an important function in that the Fresh Start Club are going to need a common enemy to help their bonding, and we need to see the consequences of DEATH being out of office. The development of the parasitic mall could have been less discordant as a stand alone book as Pratchett uses film, rock music, railways and so much other modernisation, or even just without so much of the wizard clowning scenes. Is the juvenile behaviour of the Dean meant to be part of the resurgence of life? There are enough dystopian pastiches about the death of the city that a parody could have been very welcome in its own right.

As to this desired overarching theme idea, Pratchett draws out this thread in several ways, most of which are fairly obvious, especially the exploration by DEATH of the joy of having time, rushing off to spend it, and then the crashing anxiety about the passage of time and sadness of it’s shortage. There are, however, some strands that I have not heard commented on.

Of note :

a) The portrayal of the elderly in order to show alternative views of how time passes, unfortunately a bit caricatural, but at least it was there. Were the mayflies and counting pines really necessary? Possibly not or possibly they add depth if you have the luxury of a leisurely perusal of the stained glass window effect of this thought experiment. In technical terms he takes a journey even as he’s writing this book, one downside of his avisedly spontaneous style of writing. Deliberately trying to write in a comic caricatural style at the start, maybe he gets drawn in by his own characters, notably Miss Flitworth who visibly mellows and Windle Poons who does the “This Wonderful Life” ‘finding himself’. I could even speculate whether Pratchett felt he was losing them as comic material, which is maybe why he felt the need to resort to flying cobblestones and shopping trolleys. I was personally irritated by the flying suit with a spare pair of trousers anachronism despite enjoying the joke. (I’m not very consistent on that one as I do cope with the trousers of time references in other books.)

b) As well as being glad that Miss Flitworth even exists as a simply older female character without even the charisma of being noble, or doing magic, I like that she grows before our very eyes. After so many years of making herself be the opposite of Dickens’ Miss Havisham, keeping the wedding dress but getting on with the basic necessities of life, frugally running her life and the farm, not wrecking anyone else’s life along the way; her life lacks even the slightest hint of fantasy or fun. In DEATH she meets a newly minted yet mature person, hard working, intelligent, one who she feels she can trust and admire, whose company is worth reopening the parlour, who stands out from the crowd of the ignorant village men who are only interested in her money. She is shown to be very perceptive as she sees through DEATH’s persona to a real person, understanding his struggles with his humanity and his fight against what she perceives as their common enemy - officialdom and ageing. I feel DEATH’s relationship/fling with Miss Flitworth is one of the few sympathetically handled romance-ishs in the Discworld books. (*Others I might include would be Preston/Tiffany, and Sam/Sybil's later marriage. Amongst minor characters Abbot Wen/Lady Time; and then Lupine/Ludmilla stand out being also in this book. I wonder if this is a nod to Pratchett’s own daughter entering into adolescence, although less directly than Equal Rites being written for her as a child which she mentions in the BBC documentary Back to Black, and the systematic dissection of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales and much other children’s literature perhaps being a response to the type of books that were available for girls to read).

c) In the story line of Windle Poons a marked character development happens within the context of his death/non-death/new undead life. (I feel Pratchett was clever there, talking about reactions to death without the distracting sadness of a death happening). I find it interesting to contrast how Pratchett handles the subject of the bereavement of the wizards with their reactions to his becoming undead. Pratchett is clearly widely read about the undead and the wizards try out lots of theories. By contrast their reactions to his death are fairly stereotypical and unilateral, and show little authorial research in the area of bereavement or reactions to change and disability/different ability.

Pratchett himself refers to his feelings of exclusion in early life and knew a lot about being othered and bullied (as detailed in his inaugural speech to Trinity College Dublin* later copied extensively by Marc Burrows in Magic). He had a cycle accident aged 5 which gave him, in his own words, “This mouthful of speech impediments”. (He also attributes his isolation at school to missing 2 key first days of term. Further not helped by not learning to read properly until being given a copy of The Wind in The Willows aged 10. After which stopping him reading became more of a problem. (BBC documentary Back in Black, and various biographies)

This makes me think that his insight, of which there is quite a lot, must come from careful life observation, possibly someone close. The wizards show clear denial and then “othering” - Windle is no longer seen as a slightly changed old friend or senior but simply An Other to be feared and ‘dealt with’ without regard to feelings or other niceties, preferably at a distance and by leaning on inappropriate cultural knowledge/stereotypes ie the idea of the Zombie which only bears a superficial resemblance to Poons, and along with Poons we ache to shout “But I’m still me!”. The word Zombie is tossed around like people use the words Schizophrenia or Autistic, or Fibromyalgia (which I have), and will wish to try out any folk remedy to “fix” the person, or else distance themselves.

I’m annoyed that Poons does like I’ve largely done and lets them all off the hook, by being very understanding of his former friends and colleagues and being grateful when they at least try something, anything - had he really got to that point of loneliness that even misguided attention was better than the loneliness? It is a thing. His sudden isolation at his very point of need and confusion is A Bad Thing. However it's wisely not dealt with with pathos by Pratchett, but rather it’s left to Reg Shoe and his Fresh Start Club to voice what should have been obvious and to provide the understanding and companionship needed to adapt to a very different life.

On a personal level I have some knowledge in this area. From having worked as a hospital Social Worker, lived as a foreigner abroad for the last 30 years, and principally from my own experience of the reactions of the many mainly-nice-but-thoughtless people to my and my 2 daughters’ progressive and severe disability from so called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. In my contact with other families in similar situations or being othered for different reasons, it’s not at all uncommon for people to encounter equally thoughtless reactions in family, former friends and colleagues yet find instant recognition and ‘in-the-same-boat’ understanding from complete strangers after just half a sentence of conversation. I saw some research but can’t quote where, to their utter horror, even medical personnel, including doctors, who have Long COVID-19 have found similar attitudes amongst former colleagues who should know they’re not the sort to be malingerers! It also happens to the newly bereaved, the elderly and to so many other minority groups. Here we have little to thank most fiction, especially fantasy, for reinforcing societal fears of the disfigured, those with unfortunate teeth, the wrinkled, hook-nosed and otherwise ‘ugly’.

In passing it’s noteworthy to me that all the other Fresh Starters are neither/nors too, just like the many who have invisible illnesses, disabilities or other socially isolating conditions. Reg Shoe is not an actual Zombie, Lupine is neither quite wolf nor man enough to count in either number (ditto Ludmilla); the count is working class with a middle class heredity (misspelt deliberately) condition; and so on.

The reactions of some nearest and dearest, those of the countess and Mrs Cake are well observed. Despite these being caricatural depictions, they can be common and natural overbalances. The countess is trying too hard, squirm-makingly hard, to adapt to her husband’s changes. Mrs Cake might be a pain to churches but she’s a typical parent of a special needs child desperately wanting to protect our charges from a very unkind world. I love that Pratchett gives them a very large dog (3 weeks a month) so they can both feel OK about Ludmilla starting to have a life outside the home (with the added benefit of him needing trousers for the other week lol).

d) Worthy of a small note was the portrayal of the excruciating leaving party. Yes, I’ve been there. I did not enjoy reading the scene, in much the same way as I struggle to watch Mr Bean or John Cleese in anything they’ve ever done, not because they’re bad actors, but exactly because they’re so clever at portraying agonising socially awkward situations. I like the repeating use of time props - clocks, the imp watch then lifetimers.

So did this use of the prologue work? Is this a book about death and time as well as DEATH as we’re led to believe? Not much. The balancing story arc to DEATH’s entry into time and existential angst majors on an antithesis, the disastrous results of an overabundance of life force and thus for me deviates from the stated aim. Does that matter? Depends on what you expected from a mainly comedy writer who is progressively delving into deeper work. And finally, does Pratchett rather over egg the custard? Possibly. Once I start to be able to more effectively prune back my own work, then maybe I’ll be entitled to fine tune his verbal exuberance.

Liz Figures, France, May 2022

* "Seriously Relevant: Parody, Pastiche and Satire in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Novels" Gideon Haberkorn in Terry Pratchett's Narrative Worlds pp 137–157

*  This quote included here just because I found and liked it L.E. "I have elsewhere argued that the Discworld novels, as the intersection between the poetics of fantasy and the rhetoric of humour, provide a space in which readers can probe their mental patterns for mistakes and try out new ones (new patterns, that is, although inevitably they also try out new mistakes). The Discworld novels allow readers to explore the mental lenses through which they view, and make sense of, reality" (cf. Haberkorn, ‘Debugging’).





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