I never really read funny fiction while growing up. Perhaps it was due to a generally introspective temperament. Maybe it was because those kinds of stories don't typically garner mainstream accolades. I even might owe it to teachers and librarians simply failing to put the right sort of book in my impressionable hands. Whatever the reason, the extent of my foray into humorous storytelling was pretty much limited to James and Deborah Howe's Bunnicula, which features a vampire rabbit that drains vegetables dry. Cute, but I soon moved on to Very Serious Books, the sort that may break your heart or raise your righteous ire, but won't ever make you laugh. Now having read Terry Pratchett's Reaper Man many years and volumes later, I'm beginning to think restricting myself to those highfalutin titles left a large gap in my literary education.
Death has a problem. The tripartite emptinesses called the Auditors of Reality have convinced the galaxy-swallowing entity named Azrael that Death doesn't know what he's doing. Why? Well, the problem's right in front of you -- that word "he." Death shouldn't be a "he," the Auditors argue. "He" implies personality, and personality only causes problems. It's time for a replacement. So much to his chagrin, Death learns that he's soon going to, well, die. An awkward situation, but Death decides to make the best of it. He certainly isn't going to spend his remaining time drudging away at his day job. No, he's going to live it to the full, which causes some problems for 130-year-old wizard Windle Poons. Poor Windle really ought to have shuffled off the proverbial mortal coil by now, but try as he might he can't seem to perish. It's up to him and a motley crew of undead to try and restore the natural order of things.
Though I hadn't encountered any of the massive Discworld series prior to Reaper Man, I knew Pratchett's oeuvre was almost uniformly funny. What I didn't know was how many sorts of humor he could squeeze into a single book. You might compare the approach to painting a room with dynamite. Pratchett wraps subtle ironies, outright absurdities, corny one-liners and cheesy puns around a hexogen core, then splatters every page with them. You run into crotchety mayflies, nostalgic pine trees, suicidal zombies, existentially challenged embodiments of destruction, gastronomically obsessed wizards, peddlers who sell what that don't (in the strictest sense) actually own -- and that's only in the first fifty pages. You have to read on to get to the amorous weremen, bashful bogeymen, carnivorous piles of compost, predatory shopping malls and orangutan librarians. Sure, the approach can feel a little scattershot at times, but that doesn't make it any less delightful. Who knew Death could be hilarious?
(Picture: CC 2008 by Caro's Lines; Hat Tip: Nathaniel Lee)