Saying goodbye to Terry Pratchett
My Atticus Finch is dead
All my favourite writers have one thing in common: they make me want to never write. How can I possibly compete with the fearlessness with which Nabokov swung from word to word? Will I ever be able to pack as much social commentary and psychological insight into one sentence as Austen did? And why should I even bother when I can never be as wise as Pratchett?
Because Terry Pratchett was funny, sure. Wicked, punny, British. His jokes could make you laugh—or groan—out loud. Groan because sometimes it seemed like he’d written an entire scene or plot point just so he could make a very bad—by which I mean very good—pun. In the beginning, I read him for the laughs. It was like facing a firing squad of comedic brilliance and you want to see how many bullets you can catch. Getting Pratchett’s jokes made me feel smart in an insufferable way.
Then I loved him for his women. Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Magrat Garlick, Agnes Nitt/Perdita X, Susan, Sergeant Angua, Tiffany Aching, Sybil Ramkin. I deeply admired their hair-raising courage and testicle-retracting scorn. This man could see the Amazonian warrior inside the elderly, the large, and the terminally self-conscious. I loved that Pratchett’s women always made his men look slightly foolish.
But in the end, what made me a devoted reader was his compassion, which took the form of a melancholic wisdom in books that explored religion (Small Gods), belief (Hogfather), same-sex love (Monstrous Regiment), mortality (Reaper Man) and what it means to grow up (Nation). He poked around in some dark places and you followed him because it was like trailing a really fun teacher. He always brought you back safe. His heroes were unlikely and beset by inner demons, whereas his villains were frighteningly prescient. But love, goodness and justice always triumph in the end—or at least, they limp away to relative safety.
The best thing about really prolific writers is that you feel you’re getting to know them as you make your way through their work. Not just the best parts of them—the intelligence, the kindness, the wit—but also the jagged ends. The bitterness of Sam Vimes, the rage of Granny Weatherwax, the sense of inferiority that propels Moist Von Lipwig, the cold detachment of Death, the cynicism of the Patrician. It’s hard not to see the author in the grey areas that animate his best characters.
When news of his Alzheimer’s diagnoses broke in 2007, I started rationing out my Pratchetts (I started slowing down even before that, when I had about 5 unread Discworld novels to go—life is long and all the good books are short). Then I stopped reading his new titles altogether. I’d buy them, gift them and lend them out, but I didn’t read them. Every time a Pratchett craving struck, I’d go back to some old favourites, always finding a joke, insight or reference I’d missed before. I reacted as though he’d already died. But when someone dismissed his more recent work, saying it lacked the vigour of the earlier books, I wanted to strike him. In my love for Terry Pratchett, I am childish, inarticulate and, emotionally, about 6 years old. I’m the Scout to his Atticus Finch.
Now that he’s really gone, I have a lot of reading to catch up on: the newer Discworlds, his short stories, the Johnny Maxwell series, the children’s books, the Discworld Companions, and the collaborations with Stephen Baxter and Neil Gaiman.
But I’m going to put that off for a little while longer and dig out the Hogfather. My Atticus Finch is dead. And maybe Death has some answers.
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THENSHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”
MY POINT EXACTLY.”