It was the face, that was what it was. He had an honest face. And he loved these people who looked him firmly in the eye to see his inner self, because he had a whole set of inner selves, one for every occasion. As for firm handshakes, practice had given him one to which you could moor boats. It was people skills, that’s what it was. Special people skills. Before you could sell glass as diamonds you had to make people really want to see diamonds. That was the trick, the trick of all tricks. You changed the way people saw the world. You let them see it the way they wanted it to be…
Jean-Ralphio in Parks and Recreation is the best ever minor character in sitcom comedy, with Frank Costanza from Seinfeld a close second. The reason why is that he is used sparingly. If he appeared every week, his irritant sex-pest playa character would grow tired quicker than you can say ‘Poochie’. But he’s hardly in the show so his hilarious schtick never gets old.
Havelock Vetinari is my favourite Discworld character. The Patrician of Ankh-Morpork has never been the main character of a novel. He’s always at arm’s length, so when he is used, you are excited to see what the despotic tyrant of the city is scheming. That’s part of the character’s power; he is always behind the scenes, messing around with something to his ends. But (probably wrong speculation about the intentions of an author alert!) you could imagine Pratchett getting frustrated. He has created a brilliant character but has to use him sparingly in order to make the most of him.
Enter the solution. Enter Moist Von Lipwig, a natural born criminal, a fraudster by vocation, an habitual liar, a perverted genius and totally untrustworthy. Moist is placed in charge of the decrepit Ankh-Morpork Post Office by Vetinari after The Patrician saves him from the gallows. He’s up against the modern Clacks, sending messages across the Disc at speed, and its owner, the objectionable Reacher Gilt (who has an excellent name).
With Moist comes one of Pratchett’s most enjoyable books. The Discworld has done screwball before – aside from the blatant comedy of The Colour of Magic, there has been Moving Pictures, elements of Hogfather and Jingo – but this is a step above. I couldn’t help but be reminded of some of my favourite films, whether it was the long con of The Sting or the hoodlum gone straight journey of Jake in The Blues Brothers.
When I flicked back through my hardback before turning my attentions to this post, I kept chuckling as I reminded myself of one of Pratchett’s most fun, rollicking plots. Anyone who was as prolific as he clearly loved writing but with this book, you can tell he had a blast putting everything together.
The story of a conman made good is far from novel but Pratchett is at his best at gleefully picking apart tropes and stitching them back together in some new form. You are immersed in Moist and his own spin on Discworld magic. The power of words and their relationship to magic has been a long running theme within the series. We finally are given someone whose power is the unashamed and joyous manipulation of language.
Pratchett takes his time in placing us inside Moist’s head so we are seduced by his actions and how they make him feel. I wonder if it’s like this for mountain climbers, he thought. You climb bigger and bigger mountains and you know that one day one of them is going to be just that bit too steep. But you go on doing it, because it’s so-o good when you breathe the air up there. And you know you’ll die falling.
You can’t help but love Moist so Pratchett then decides to mess with his reader by bluntly outlining just what he is guilty of. According to his golem parole officer Mr Pump, Moist has killed 2.338 people without ever laying a finger on them. “You Have Stolen, Embezzled, Defrauded And Swindled Without Discrimination, Mr Lipvig, You Have Ruined Businesses And Destroyed Jobs. When Banks Fail, It Is Seldom Bankers Who Starve. Your Actions Have Taken Money From Those Who Had Little Enough To Begin With. In A Myriad Small Ways You Have Hastened The Deaths of Many. You Do Not Know Them. You Did Not See Them Bleed. But You Snatched Bread From Their Mouths And Tore Clothes From Their Backs. For Sport, Mr Lipvig. For Sport. For The Joy Of The Game.”
Ouch. Everyone likes to be entertained by the antics of a conman. Mr Pump is judging the reader as much as he is his ward.
Ultimately it is the Post Office that cons Moist into improving its fortunes. Pratchett flirts with the spinechilling again in how the organisation operates. It is crumbling under tonnes of unsent mail and what that means is words. Undelivered words, emotional words, words of import, words that haunt Moist into delivering them. “Words have power, you understand? It is in the nature of our universe. Our Library itself distorts time and space on quite a grand scale. Well, when the Post Office started accumulating letters, it was storing words. In fact what was being created was what we call a gervaisa, a tomb of living words.”
Going Postal is not just the familiar Pratchett tropes about the power of words, but with haunted letters replacing books and “spells”; it is a prescient novel too. It may reference the Enron crash by calling the Grand Trunk Company, which operates the Clacks, “too big to fail” but it also hints at the financial crisis that came several years after the publication of this book. Think of Mr Pump and his “When Banks Fail” quotation above.
You could read this simply, a story of the plucky publicly owned upstart versus the rapacious capitalist monolith. Anyone who regularly experiences how the rail network in the UK operates in the decades since privatisation would have sympathy with this viewpoint. But it’s an utter nonsense of an argument that public beats private, or vice versa, in every single case every single time.
Pratchett satirises the old Post Office, which is literally falling apart at the start of the novel. Its main staff comprise a hopelessly dejected old man, Mr Groat the junior postman, and Stanley, the pin-collecting naif. Groat tries to defend his actions but his argument that “Sometimes things smash so bad it’s better to leave it alone than try to pick up the pieces” is not convincing.
The old ways aren’t necessarily the best ways. When they work, the clacks are effective and the best way to communicate. Longstanding readers know the invention of the clacks, first seen in The Fifth Elephant, helped spread modernity through the Discworld. Not perfect modernity, but nothing ever is.
Moist knows the clacks work but that doesn’t render the Post Office redundant, it just offers something different. Cars haven’t made trains obsolete, nor has the Kindle ruined paperbacks. Progress is good, but it doesn’t mean we have to forget the old things that still serve a purpose. Moist sees this and this is why he doesn’t want the Trunk destroyed in a bid to bring down Gilt.
But something irked Moist. Gilt had been right, damn him. If you wanted to get a message five hundred miles away very, very fast, the Trunk was the way to do it. If you wanted to wrap it up in a ribbon, you needed the Post Office…Moist kept thinking of all the bad things that could happen without the semaphore. Oh, they used to happen before the semaphore, of course, but that wasn’t the same thing at all.
The problem is not with the technology, it’s with the people who use it. And it’s Gilt who is truly villainous. A rapacious capitalist who stole and murdered his way to the top, it is no surprise he touts an eyepatch, pointed beard and parrot who barks “Twelve and a half percent.”
Certainly the piracy rumour might explain the apparently bottomless fortune and the fact that no one, absolutely no one, knew anything about him prior to his arrival in the city. Perhaps he sold his past, people joked, just like he’d bought himself a new one.
His bottomless fortune is due to his absolute lack of morality in business. For Gilt, a name with both financial and legal connotations, operation of the Grand Trunk is a game and one he wants to play to his advantage, using some of the best tools to hand – embezzlement, theft, breach of trust and misappropriation of funds. He seduces as much as Moist but there’s a threat lurking not far from Gilt’s surface. He surveyed the faces of men who now knew that they were riding a tiger. It had been a good ride up until a week or so ago. It wasn’t a case of not being able to get off. They could get off. That was not the problem. It was a case that the tiger knew where the lived.
Gilt uses words to his advantage and one of the book’s best passages describes in calm anger the reasons why the Grand Trunk is not working. It’s not because Gilt is running it into the ground with other people’s money before acquiring a ludicrously valuable asset for a nominal sum. Instead: The Grand Trunk’s problems were clearly the result of some mysterious spasm in the universe and had nothing to do with greed, arrogance and wilful stupidity. Oh, the Grand Trunk management had made mistakes – oops, ‘well-intentioned judgements, which, with the benefit of hindsight, might regrettably been, in some respects, in error’ – but these had mostly occurred, it appeared, while correcting ‘fundamental systemic errors’ committed by the previous management. No one was sorry for anything because no living creature had done anything wrong; bad things had happened by spontaneous generation in some weird, chilly, geometrical otherworld, and ‘were to be regretted’ (another bastard phrase that’d sell itself to any weasel in a tight corner).
(I make no apology for using that lengthy quote as it is one of my all-time favourites from Discworld. These are words that resonate with anyone sick of excuses from political and business classes that reinvent the event horizon for bullshit without accepting even a modicum of responsibility.)
Gilt even has Moist in awe of him. He was in the presence of a master…If Moist von Lipwig had been a career killer, it would have been like meeting a man who’d devised a way to destroy civilisations. Moist’s realisation that he has been fooled by the Post Office also comes with the insight that he may be many things, but he is not his adversary.
“I’ve fallen into good ways. I keep thinking I can give it up at any time I like, but I don’t. But I know if I couldn’t give it up any time I liked, I wouldn’t go on doing it. Er…there is another reason too.”
“And that is – ?”
“I’m not Reacher Gilt. That’s sort of important. Some people might say there’s not a lot of difference, but I can see it from where I stand and it’s there.”
He may not be as bad as Gilt, but Moist pales in comparison to the mass of decent men and women who populate the book. Like Robert Dearheart, the chairman and architect of the Grand Trunk Company, who had his business stolen from under him. Or the printers Teemer and Spools, big, solid unflappable workmen, recognising in them all the things [Moist] knew he lacked, like steadfastness, solidarity and honesty. Moist, of course, steals from them. Or Mr Pony, the steadfast engineer trying to make the Grand Trunk work amid horrific constraints and is armed with his book of pink flimsies. Or Adora Belle Dearheart, Robert’s daughter and a wonderful throwback to Katharine Hepburn and strongwilled female protagonists from classic screwball comedies, smoking a cigarette as if she had a grudge against it.
Moist bridges the old and new worlds, someone who uses modern methods to reinvigorate monolithic organisations without turning to (literally) murderous capitalism. He hacks the clacks to bring down the operation that owns them. In doing so, he joins a lawman with a tenuous grasp of the rules of the realm, a witch who seems to act largely out of a desire to prove herself right, and a dictator running Ankh-Morpork successfully. A conman now stands alongside Sam Vimes, Granny Weatherwax and Vetinari among Pratchett’s strongest characters.
This offers a sting in a wildly enjoyable tale. Because it’s really questionable just how much Moist has changed over the course of the book. I’m not sure he was redeemed – the qualities that got him into trouble in the first place are those that steer the Post Office towards prosperity and brings control of the Clacks back into more sensible hands. Pratchett loves building characters with considerable flaws and making us love them. Why do we do this?
This was known as that greatest of treasures, which is Hope. It was a good way of getting poorer really quickly, and staying poor. It could be you. But it wouldn’t be.
This makes Going Postal really interesting because regardless of being told we are being conned, there’s still the hope Moist will be a better man, despite all evidence to the contrary. We’re being asked to Find the Lady, even though we know it’s a trick and we also know how Pratchett loves subverting our expectations. Another thing he loves stressing is the power of belief. The reader’s belief continues to overpower what they see in front of them. This neat knot of complexity leaves the reader thinking about the novel some days after they finish.
One of the greats this, and something that led to a delightful tribute to Pratchett in the days following his death in March. Those who have read this will remember how the names of those who died serving the Grand Trunk will have their names sent up and down the clacks with the prefix ‘GNU’. Because a man is not dead if his name is still spoken. A group of fans decided to do the same with Pratchett’s name, distributing it across the internet. GNU Terry Pratchett.
Next week, we return to the mean streets of Ankh-Morpork. Racial tensions are building to a head again and Sam Vimes is on the case, so long as he is home for young Sam’s bedtime. See you next week.