Taxman – Making Money

Making_Money_Paul_Kidby‘You use words, and I’m told you do it well, but words are soft and can be pummelled into different meanings by a skilled tongue. Numbers are hard. Oh, you can cheat with them but you cannot change their nature. Three is three. You cannot persuade it to be four, even if you give it a great big kiss.’

When I wrote about Going Postal a few weeks back, I was taken by how remarkably prescient it was in anticipating the financial crisis of 2008. To its credit, the novel wasn’t a strict ‘public = good, private = bad’ treatise. Under the auspices of Moist Von Lipwig, ‘confidence capitalism’, as I am dubbing any enterprise being led by a trickster, was the most responsible way of reinvigorating decrepit businesses.

The groundwork for Making Money was laid quite heavily in Going Postal, with the novel ending with the Patrician in dire need of someone to run Ankh-Morpork’s mint. That someone is Moist, whose ability to attract trouble is almost Rincewindian.

Through a series of circumstances that are blissfully chaotic, involving wealthy dowagers, beloved pets and the dark hand of the Patrician Vetinari, Moist ends up responsible for the Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork and the Royal Mint. Actually he’s responsible for the dog, who has been given a 50 percent share in the bank after his owner Topsy Lavish dies. The former chairwoman of the bank previously awarded a one percent share to her pooch, making the mutt the majority shareholder.

As custodian of the bank, Moist is faced with having to reinvent another failed institution and fight off threats from the rest of the Lavish family, particularly Cosmo, who has dreams of becoming the new Vetinari. Doesn’t anyone learn this never ends well?

The novel gives us an interesting premise and in true Pratchett style forces us to think about the everyday in a different way. What do the coins and notes that sit in our pockets, wallets and purses actually represent? Why do they have value when their material worth is something very different?

As Mr Bent, the bank’s strange chief cashier puts it: ‘I would prefer to say that it is a tacit understanding that we will honour our promise to exchange it for a dollar’s worth of gold provided we are not, in point of fact, asked to.”

It’s a neat extension on Pratchett’s longstanding theme about the power of belief. We believe these chunks of metal or watermarked pieces of paper have value, with the buildings where we can borrow and deposit akin to temples. But the money doesn’t actually exist. What we are spending is our faith.

He then goes one step further with Moist and suggests that it’s not the gold that matters:

It’s in the city itself. The city says, in exchange for that gold, you will have all these things. The city is the magician, the alchemist in reverse. It turns worthless gold into…everything.

How much is Ankh-Morpork worth? Add it all up! The buildings, the streets, the people, the skills, the art in the galleries, the guilds, the laws, the libraries…Billions? No. No money would be enough.

The city was one big gold bar. What did you need to back the currency. You needed the city. The city says a dollar is worth a dollar.

It was a dream, but Moist was good at selling dreams. And if you could sell the dream to enough people, no one dared wake up.

Moist’s wife Adora is off golem-chasing for a good chunk of the book and her search for the golden golems also builds on this. These are a supposed Umnian myth with it unclear whether they were actually built or whether:

“The ‘golden golem’ was a metaphor referring to the value of golems to the Umnians. When people wish to express the concept of worth, ‘gold’ is always the word of choice.”

As regular readers know, people profit off the golems by doing nothing and letting the automatons do all of the heavy lifting for them. What else benefits from others’ hard work? Banks.

This being a Moist book, Vetinari is not very far from proceedings. My favourite Discworld character takes his opportunity to make some neat points about money’s role in empire building and makes the reader, yet again, applaud the actions of a dictator.

Like Moist, the reader has difficulty working out who the real Vetinari is. By keeping him at arm’s length, he remains the enigma wrapped in the etc and so on. There is an excellent scene between Moist and the Patrician, where they walk through a room full of death masks of Havelock’s predecessors. Is this something that freaks out Vetinari?

“I have to say I’ve rather looked down on them. Gross men, for the most part, greedy venal and clumsy. Cunning can do duty for thought up to a point, and then you die. Most of them died rich, fat and terrified. They left the city the worse for their incumbency and the better for their death. But now the city works, Mr Lipwig. We progress. We would not do so if the ruler was the kind of man who would kill elderly ladies, do you understand?”

He may not kill old ladies but the continuing narrative thread of how Vetinari bends Ankh-Morpork to its will and the reader welcomes it is one of the enduring joys of the Discworld novel. But as he notes later, full domination is not on his mind. Even superhuman Patricians have their limits:

“We use our slaves to create more slaves? But do we want to face the whole world in arms? For that is what we would do, at the finish. The best that we could hope for is that some of us would survive. Triumph and rot. That is the lesson of history, Lord Downey. Are we now rich enough?”

Despite some excellence within the novel, when it came to writing this, I spent a great deal of time trying to work out Making Money. The title is similar to Moving Pictures, in that it hides a double meaning. Making Money could mean the accumulation of cash, or the physical process of producing coins and notes. The novel purports to look at both but while these are two typically rich (sorry) areas for Pratchett to explore, there are some substantial flaws.

This is because there is very little in the book that is resolved, and not in a way that is meant to take up brain power some weeks later because you still can’t work out whether Small Gods was a pro or anti-faith book. For example.

As I have noted, Making Money is full of potentially interesting plot threads or sweet concepts. The subterranean water-powered computer that can predict the Ankh-Morpork economy from the bank’s basement. The insane asylum filled with people who believe they are the Patrician Vetinari. The attempt to base a city’s economy on an army of four thousand golden golems, which made me think of the brilliant terracotta army at the finale of Interesting Times. Moist’s thirst for excitement and need for danger, which manifests itself in him embarking on rooftop races across Ankh-Morpork.

The book’s issues are typified in Mr Bent, the chief cashier who takes great pleasure in finding nothing funny. Aside from the subtle nod to the old British children’s television show, about a buttoned up clerk who enjoys dressing up, there is little in his arc that makes sense. He was someone destined to be a legendary clown, but who sought solace in numbers, instead of being humiliated. His inner clown is not that far from the surface.

The issue with this is not the concept itself – a neat spin on the classic ‘monster within’ trope – it’s more in how it barely fits within the wider novel. It just sits there, without any real progression or resolution. You could be charitable and argue he could represent two sides of the same coin, for example, or how he hides his true self as much as Moist, but the reader needs to make some huge leaps in order to make that work.

For me, the great books are those which require the reader to work at the novel, to try and make sense of the bits that don’t quite fit, to imagine how a world works or fill the gaps within a character’s past or present. But there’s a difference between an author not treating their reader like an idiot, as well they should, and a book featuring a bunch of vaguely related concepts on the page and effectively forcing the reader to do the legwork.

There’s no arc to the story and it is very unsatisfying as a result. It reads like a first draft, where there is something there, but a lot of demolishing blind alleys and sharpening the edges of the narrative are required for it to be whipped into shape. You feel Adora being shunted off for several hundred pages should mean *something*, that the golems represent a lot more than being told ‘ok, the economy is now built on these guys. Because the book is ending soon’. It is one of many great concepts that are brought in front of the reader, messed around with a bit but nothing is really done with them.

I feel bad writing this, really bad. Pratchett had suffered from a minor stroke several years before this book was published, so it’s a marvel it came out at all, without some muppet on the internet going ‘well, yeah, but what about this…’. It’s ultimately really sad, as this is the first of the post-Embuggerance novels, and it shows.

What I love about Pratchett is him somehow stuffing hilarious and deep characters, leftfield brain experiments and hardcore thinking into a drumtight plot. There is so much in this book that could be cut and just doesn’t work. It’s akin to Sourcery, where the last two acts were shoved into 40-odd pages, or The Last Continent, where a lot of things happened but for no real reason.

Probably the worst thing for me was that I didn’t dislike it. I just couldn’t really fathom it. My girlfriend kept asking me why my brows were so furrowed when I had the hardback opened. My answer was always the same. I didn’t understand what he was getting at.

Where does this leave us? After Pratchett died, I said I wanted to judge each post-Embuggerance book fairly. He wanted to write the novels, something I was very glad of, so it would be patronising if I didn’t give him fair treatment in looking them with the same eye I did with the previous 35. I’ve four books still to go and the encouraging thing is Making Money is a blip, rather than a sign of his (understandably) waning powers. But first…

Kicker conspiracy – Unseen Academicals

185px-UnseenSo. This isn’t the usual style of posting. Since October, I have broadly stuck to one post per week. But something happened with Unseen Academicals that I have never had occur before.

I gave up.

After around 150 pages, I could see it just wasn’t working for me. Barely anything of note had happened. In the place of plot or ratatat dialogue, there were huge slabs of unwieldy paragraphs, conversations that were effectively monologues in how one character spoke for the best part of a page, only to be followed by another.

It was depressing to read just how sharply Pratchett’s writing abilities had declined in the months since his diagnosis. All that I loved about him was somewhere else; the daring wit, the joy of imagination, the darkness just under the surface of the page. Every so often a joke would come out of nowhere that made it feel like an older book. But that made the mess surrounding it sadder.

I put Unseen Academicals down three times before coming back to it to give it another chance. It didn’t get better. Making Money seemed to suggest a loosening of Pratchett’s formidable writing abilities. It is still incredible he was able to write, but these were no longer the mischievously intelligent books of old. I felt it better to move on, than to persevere with something that really did not work.

I picked up I Shall Wear Midnight, hoping Tiffany Aching would lead to a novel more in line with the Pratchett of old. I had noted that both Monstrous Regiment and Thud! were uncharacteristically clunky reads. Both enjoyable (the former moreso than the latter) but lacking a lightness of touch of a Small Gods, for example. In between these, the Tiffany novels felt like the Pratchett of Guards! Guards!, the one who was able to lead a reader into the strange and hilarious.

Mercifully that was the case and the usual posting schedule will resume next week. I felt persevering with a book that was so unlike Pratchett would be unsatisfying for me as a reader. Putting together the usual two thousand word posts would be difficult to write and even worse to read.

So, in seven days, normal service resumes. Tiffany is in deep trouble and one of the Discworld’s oldest characters returns to help her. See you next week.

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5 Comments

  1. I had a similar reaction to reading U.A. – I couldn’t get through it. But I tried listening to it and it works very well for me. Not sure why. I re-listen to most of his books and U.A. is one of my favorites, compared to Maurice, Mort, Reaper Man and Moving Pictures which I almost never give another listen.

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    1. That’s interesting – strange how another format makes it better. I was utterly gobsmacked that I had to drop the book. Given how close I am to the end, it really annoyed me!

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      1. I think I’m right in saying that Pratchett was by now dictating rather than writing his books – I suppose that might have something to do with it? Happy to be corrected if wrong. Lovely man though he by all accounts was, he was very definitely in control at all times, and I can’t imagine him accepting the dual authorship that I’ve always thought some of the most famous dictators (Edgar Wallace, Barbara Cartland, Winston Churchill, the Billy Bunter chap) must effectively have been participating in. Maybe they’re really audiobooks that have been transcribed, rather than books, if that makes any sense.

        I didn’t love Unseen Academicals, but I didn’t think it worked any worse than the first two Discworlds, and a few of the others, where plots fell apart and there were long passages without inspiration where you’re waiting for the next lightning bolt. Surprised that you found it literally unreadable. It does of course get worse in some ways, although maybe not in the ways you’d expect. Or at least in the ways I would have expected, because I know bugger all about his condition.

        Fantastic blog by the way, really enjoying it and am looking forward to reading some of those I missed out in the middle years that have been recommended here. Thank you very much.

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  2. The character Nutt in Unseen Academicals eventually finds out that he’s an Orc and has to fight against this label. He constantly has this over his head and is plagued with the question: “do I have worth?”

    To me this seemed remarkably self-referential of Terry’s own embuggerance.

    It’s not a free book. It’s horribly self-aware of what it’s labouring under. I can understand why you stopped.

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