16 March, 2017

Mort by Terry Pratchett

1. This post marks my 100th post about literature. It's fitting that this 100th post is about Mort, which may be the first Discworld novel I can fully get behind as a novel. This is a fantastic place to start in on his books. But these notes help me explore and catalogue my thoughts on books, and as I think through one idea, another comes up until I reach the end. So, let me see what comes up here.
“Albert grunted. "Do you know what happens to lads who ask too many questions?"
Mort thought for a moment.
"No," he said eventually, "what?"
There was silence.
Then Albert straightened up and said, "Damned if I know. Probably they get answers, and serve 'em right.”

2. Mort is the first in this series that doesn’t put the jokes in charge. The plot and characters clearly drive this novel because they are consistent throughout, because the characters go through interesting changes that realistically result from the worldbuilding and plot, and because the themes are portrayed and explained through the plot and characters. The first two books were collections of loosely related short stories, the third was driven by its theme. This is an actual novel, with a story to tell and everything—and it reads better because of it.
—Partly because it’s what we expect from a novel, sure. But we expect that from a novel because it works. In other words, a contract with the reader is laid out in the opening pages, and the author lives up to that contract throughout the rest of the book, allowing the reader to really dig into the themes and characters without being distracted by switching gears between stories, or having to suspend more disbelief in the middle of the thing. This is one reason why novels are so effective and popular as a format.
Ankh-Morpork had dallied with many forms of government and had ended up with that form of democracy known as One Man, One Vote. The Patrician was the Man; he had the Vote.

3. Now, that’s not to say this novel isn’t funny. It’s to say that this novel has found the ordinate place for its humor: to satirise culture and discern situations. And this isn’t just my personal preference: the way Pratchett writes the succeeding novels seems to put humor in the same place, showing his preference or his realization about this strategy’s effectiveness. This was my observation and belief as a reader, and then I found this 2004 interview of Pratchett saying the same thing:
Discworld began as an antidote to fantasy. In fact, it was interesting to find out, at the first ever Discworld convention—which was about eight or ten years ago, I don’t know—ninety percent of the people who attended did not think of themselves as fantasy readers, although they read Discworld. In the early 1980s there was a lot of fantasy which in many respects was a copy of Tolkien. And I thought, ‘There were certainly cliches here: so much fun could be had.’ Discworld was, I suppose, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, for fantasy. I take my life in my hands by saying that, but that’s probably as good a way as I could put it. Discworld is written by a better writer now. I’ve been doing it for twenty-one years and Mort is actually the first Discworld book that I’m quite pleased about. But if I wrote it now, I’d write it better.
So there you have it: one of his readers who is always thinking about writing thinks that the jokes here are properly placed in the construction of the novel, and Pratchett himself thinks the same thing. Jokes are fantastic, that’s a part of why I read Pratchett. But the best jokes reflect culture in order to impact it—to show us the ridiculous that we take for granted. They last longer when they are the catalyst to make us think about things. And by putting the plot first, then building the jokes off of it, building the jokes to support it, the plot gives a context to the jokes that helps their purpose. For instance:
“It would seem that you have no useful skill or talent whatsoever," he said. "Have you thought of going into teaching?”
I’m all for teachers and think they hold one of the most important positions in our society, but this is a solid joke. And without the context of the whole novel, the plot and characters and other jokes, it’s just a solid joke—little more effective and memorable than a knock-knock or chicken crossing the road. Within the context, this adds another wrinkle to his larger discussion of jobs and employment, the main theme of this novel. This joke shows one more way in which the world views professions and personal marketability. Yes, it’s played for laughs. But it also informs. And with the context of the plot, this informativeness surfaces more easily for the reader.
4. The theme of this novel is clearly employment. Before you say, “ugh,” and wander off, hear me out. Pratchett takes a stab at explaining how jobs and humans interact. Namely, he posits that jobs change us as people, but we also influence them simultaneously. It’s funny and sad when Mort can’t find an employer, and all the advice he gets from his father keeps prospective employers away. We can relate to that. And by taking the only offer he gets, he bites off way more than he anticipates. We can relate to that too. And by having his own personality and ideas, he chafes with management. We can relate to that too. But by placing this whole theme in a fantasy context with a job that doesn’t relate to us at all—harvesting souls—the whole theme manages to miss what makes our day-to-day experience so mundane. This exemplifies why speculative fiction can be so useful. Tell me I’m to read a book about a man at a job, and unless the job is something crazy exciting I’m not going to read the book, even if it’s as satirical and funny as Pratchett is. But put it outside of our experience while still lampooning and rephrasing that experience, and this novel really works. This is why I read science fiction and fantasy—for the ideas and reflections of our cultural norms. Speculative fiction makes it easier to digest a theme this close to home.
"And what's that?"

5. However, the pacing is a little odd in places. There are times when it feels like the novel moves too fast for the import of the moment, and times when moments drag on for unapparent reasons. The timing that feels most correct is the opening and the ending—Mort’s first experiences as Death’s apprentice, and their fight at the end. Otherwise, some of the middle portions seem to run long—like when Mort visits the tavern—or short—like when Albert returns to the Unseen University. At the tavern, the drink Mort quaffs doesn’t add much to the story, it reinforces his arc of assuming the aspect of death, but doesn't really add anything new to it. And Albert’s return is set up in the worldbuilding to be more important and influential than it turns out to be. The former feels like an idea where Pratchett ran out of steam; the latter like Pratchett was just getting going when he stopped—a whole Discworld novel could’ve been written about Albert’s return, instead we get a short vignette. That said, I fully admit that this is niggling. Nine times out of ten, the scene fits perfectly.
But at least the way was clear now. When you step off a cliff, your life takes a very definite direction.

6. So there we have it: the first Discworld book that fully embraces being a novel. Everything supports the plot and themes, with well developed characters, and interesting insight into an applicable theme. Of course, it’s still fantasy and funny, but that humor and satire is why I often suggest reading Pratchett to a wide variety of people. I would suggest you start here, in a book dealing with the familiar themes of death and love, but focused on the overarching theme of work. This is the highest placed Pratchett novel on The Big Read, and it’s easy to see that it should be highly placed in that particular popularity contest.

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