Thank-you and goodbye: my thoughts on Sir Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett Two days ago, I received the news that Sir Terry Pratchett has died.

I am still, now, working out how I feel. ‘Sad’ is probably most obvious, and I am sad. But there is more to it than that. We’ve not only lost a gifted writer devoted to his craft, the creator of many highly regarded books, but also an author that made a significant contribution to fiction and literature, an author whose work paved the way for a new development of the fantasy genre and opened up a renewed consideration of what it can and should offer to its readers.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, arguably his most popular contribution to the genre, is a set of books that are, in my humble opinion, quite frankly, unbeatable. On my bookshelves, they have been placed amongst a host of other good books – many of which sit firmly in the fantasy genre – and yet it is as if they occupy a category of their own. They’re often funny, occasionally sad, always intelligent, and ultimately, fundamentally fantastic. They’re irreverent, reckless, audacious, and so devil-may-care even James Bond would choke on his martini. They’re profoundly readable, whether we’re being treated to Rincewind’s latest exploits (which may or may not involve Luggage), one of Moist von Lipwig’s conversations with Vetinari, or Nanny Ogg’s often tumultuous relationship with Esme Weatherwax. The characters are unique and believable, artfully brought to life and established in a wonderfully imaginative setting that never fails to delight and intrigue, the plots are varied, cleverly paced and dynamic, and the writing quite honestly unparalleled by other high-profile names in the genre.

Again, that’s not all there is to it. His books may be fun, but they’re also insightful, some of the most deeply thought-provoking pieces that I’ve ever read. They draw attention to firmly established conventions of behaviour, thought, and speech, and by the time they’re not even halfway done, the reader is left to not only question those conventions, but also quite often to dismiss their foundations as, at best, irrelevant. Terry Pratchett’s books hold a magnifying glass up to the world, and there’s no one there to paper up the cracks. The Discworld series may be about a fantasy universe where the world is flat and assassins leave receipts, but the basic concepts, thoughts and themes are as real as you or I.

Terry Pratchett’s books are a wonderful contribution to literature. They’re unique, impudent, and fearless, fall into cliché only to laugh at it, and feature interestingly varied plots with multiple threads, a few side-issues and a cat or two, in a well-mixed cocktail of politics, religion, industry, and dishonest tradesmen selling dubious meat. He didn’t just write stories; he created complex, multi-faceted, gloriously bizarre yet quite plausible worlds, and showed us what it would be like to live in them. He exhibited a sense of breadth and depth combined with an understanding of society and human nature that most textbooks fail to provide.

So, yes. I am sad, and for many, obvious reasons. But it’s not about me. It’s about a wonderfully clever man that is no longer with us, and so there is really only one thing that needs to be said.

Thank-you, Terry Pratchett. For everything.

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Book Review: The Body Artist – Don DeLillo

The Body Artist

The Body Artist begins with normality: breakfast between a married couple, Lauren and Rey, in their ramshackle rented house on the New England coast. Recording their delicate, intimate, half-complete thoughts and words, DeLillo proves himself a stunningly unsentimental observer of our idiosyncratic relationships. But after breakfast, Rey makes a decision that leaves Lauren utterly alone, or seems to.

As Lauren, the body artist of the title, becomes strangely detached from herself and the temporal world, the novel becomes an exploration of a highly abnormal grieving process; a fascinating exposé of ‘who we are when we are not rehearing who we are’; and a rarefied study of trauma and creativity, absence and presence, isolation and communion.”

Needless to say, faced with the above synopsis of DeLillo’s The Body Artist, I knew I was in for a difficult time of it, and when I finally came to the end, and was able to close said volume (with a not inconsiderable sigh of relief), I’d discovered, among other things, that my preconceptions on the matter had been, unfortunately for yours truly, entirely accurate.

It was not an enjoyable read. The Body Artist is neither entertaining nor particularly intriguing, and seemingly entirely devoid of plot. Many of the passages are uncomfortably jarring, and it is practically impossible to relate to any of the characters, meaning that the reader remains bizarrely detached for the entirety of the narrative. It begins ignominiously, with a passage that, rather than providing an informative opening salvo, simply confuses the reader, and when it concludes, it does so quietly and without fanfare. By that point, I was simply relieved to make it to the end, which is not, might I add, how I normally feel at such a juncture.

Writing:

DeLillo’s focus on the mundane leaves the reader bogged down in specifics. If there were wider plot movements – and I cannot assert such with any certainty – they simply passed me by, leaving me rudderless and confused in the midst of lengthy, jarring passages that seemed to make little sense and go nowhere in particular. While DeLillo’s abilities with language are certainly impressive in that he is easily capable of compelling the reader to question even the most basic aspects of a daily routine, not to mention describing the experience of grief and trauma in a manner that is, if not wholly unprecedented, at least refreshing in its originality, his style is arguably too detached for the reader for form any kind of connection with the characters, and his relentless emphasis on commonplace objects too frequent to be anything other than needlessly irritating.

Characters:

Although The Body Artist is written from the perspective of Lauren, the grieving widow, we hear little from her. In the conversation with Rey’s ex-wife, Lauren’s voice is lost in the proud testimony given by the other woman, in her interactions with ‘Mr. Tuttle,’ she becomes the worshipful caretaker prioritizing his knowledge, ability and well-being over her own, and even the performance she gives at the end of the novella, the culmination of her hard work, and, arguably, a symbolic event indicative of the reclaiming of her identity and life, is related by a reporter. She has little discernible personality, and although she is positioned as the protagonist, makes few decisions of her own, and is mainly a passive figure, operated upon by others. I found her impossible to relate to, and her perspective inaccessible and detached.

Plot:

As a speculative exposition into the effect of trauma on individuals, The Body Artist is a fundamentally clever text. However, with little conceivable plot beyond the detailing of Lauren’s simple existence at the coastal home and her recovery of her identity after her husband’s suicide, it’s difficult to read, and practically impossible to thoroughly immerse oneself in. It’s an artful attempt to put an often inexpressible experience into words, but it’s not the type of book that’s can be truthfully described as ‘enjoyable,’ and I’m unlikely to ever pick it up again.