Friday, April 2, 2010

Man, Reaper Is Funny

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)

12 comments:

Lady Glamis said...

Nice. Thanks for this review. I've written about death before, but Death was a companion to Sorry who decided to run away. It was a poem. Lots of fun, but not funny. :)

Lady Glamis said...

And I meant SORROW, not Sorry. Sigh. I'm done for the week.

Scattercat said...

I *told* you Pratchett was awesome. ;-) One of my favorite things is to read the series straight through from earliest to most recent and watch the evolution from zany madcap parody of fantasy tropes to slightly-less-zany a-bit-madcap biting satire (with a warmly positive humanistic tone that usually avoids preachiness.)

<3 Reaper Man 4 EVA

My second favorite Discworld books are "The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents" and "Fifth Elephant." ("Elephant" has a LOT of backstory, so you'd have to read the Guards series first. I assure you they're worth it.)

Loren Eaton said...

Michelle,

No worries. I had one of those weeks, too.

Personification is fun, isn't it? George Herbert did some great stuff with it.

Loren Eaton said...

SC,

Pretty. Darn. Funny. I think the carnivorous compost was one of my favorite bits, not least of which because my wife has been patiently feeding our compost pile with table scraps for months. Imagining it try to eat me is both horrifying and hilarious.

Well, between Discworld and the Parker series, I don't think my reading list will ever be empty.

Scattercat said...

As a random further comment, I actually STARTED with the humor side. I didn't know I liked scifi and fantasy because I hadn't really read any as a kid. I DID like Dr. Demento's show and Weird Al, so what started me on fantasy novels was actually Craig Shaw Gardener, who led in turn to authors who didn't, um, suck quite as much.

I found Terry Pratchett in my uncle Matt's old room at Grandpa's house. "Witches Abroad" and "Reaper Man" were the first two books of the Discworld I read...

B. Nagel said...

I remember being spellbound by Xanth series, fantasy run amok. But(!) if your appreciation and love of puns does not tower high, high above the clouds, it may not be for you.

But maybe for someone you know and love . . .

Scattercat said...

Xanth was fun for between six to twelve books. Then it sort of stopped having anything OTHER than goofy puns.

Also, I got irritated when I became old enough to realize just how sexist Chameleon was. Sort of ruined the whole early part of it for me.

Loren Eaton said...

SC,

How interesting. That seems to me to invert the ordinary order of things. Most people who enjoy genre generally start out pretty dour and only gradually loosen up. Not that I'm speaking from personal experience or anything ...

Loren Eaton said...

B.,

Puns, you say? It might drive me mad, but my wife would probably love it. You should see her family during holidays. Those puns are deadly.

Scattercat said...

I've always used humor as a coping mechanism. I was pretty depressed as a teenager, and looking on the goofy side was a big part of what kept me going. (Bunnicula was an early favorite, too, for instance, but I recall in sixth grade when I sort of got... stuck on "Howliday Inn." I felt completely miserable at all times... except when I was reading that book. I'd get to the end, flip back to the beginning, and start over again. In seventh grade, it was Robert Aspirin's "Myth" series. In both cases, I can *still* recite the opening lines verbatim from memory. Looking back, it's pretty clear to me that I was really badly off, emotionally speaking.

I was always a goofy kid, though. Still am; most of my participation in any online social medium is drive-by joke comments. ;-)

Loren Eaton said...

Junior high is brutal. Wasn't it Flannery O'Connor who said that anyone who survived childhood had enough raw writing material for a decade? If only she could see grades five through eight nowadays. Humor's a good way to get through, far better than, say, controlled substances. I only bring that up half joking; I've known people who've self-medicated there way through, and that's very, very bad.