So Going Postal is obviously a re-read. Obviously. It’s my favourite of all Terry Pratchett’s books. I’ve read it, what, at least five times?
Somehow I’ve never reviewed it here though.
This, the 33rd Discworld novel, is probably the peak of Pratchett’s technical powers as a novelist. Before this, the slow build-up from the light romp of The Colour of Magic through novels that become ever more serious in theme, ever angrier in their satire and ever more humane in their palpable love for their flawed-but-lovable protagonists; after this, the rapid stagnation and decline into inflexible dogma (check out, or rather don’t, The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day).
Pratchett’s books have always been about character, with plot taking a back seat, and Going Postal is no exception. Our Hero is Moist von Lipwig, a conman who is hanged as the book opens for a long list of inventive and profitable crimes.
And then, as Pratchett puts it, an angel appears unto him.
Except the angel is Lord Vetinari, the despotic Patrician of London-adjacent fictional metropolis Ankh-Morpork, and the second chance he offers Moist is to reopen the city’s long-defunct Post Office, a job that’s already killed four of Vetinari’s most capable clerks.
If he fails, he’ll be hanged for the second time, and this time Vetinari will make sure it’s fatal. To succeed, he’ll have to compete with the vile Reacher Gilt, chairman of the Grand Trunk, a company that runs a semaphore system (“the clacks”) that can carry messages across the continent in a matter of hours – if you can afford the extortionate fees, and if the clacks is actually operational when you want to send your message.
It’s a novel about a lot of things: redemption, corporate greed, the power of words, the importance of community. The lynchpin holding these things together is the Post Office itself, a once-grand building that houses thousands upon thousands of dry, dead letters, undelivered because of a tragedy that remains unspecified until quite late in the book. One of Moist’s first adventures as Postmaster is to deliver some of those letters, causing a kind of joyous chaos that’s felt across the city: an elderly couple are married when a love letter arrives fifty years late; a ruckus is caused when a family realises the wrong sister got mum’s best jewellery.
That anarchic joy is the overriding mood of the novel, despite its occasional delvings into tragedy. As news of the reopening of the Post Office spreads, as Moist recruits new postmen and restores the building’s signage and invents stamps and reopens the mail coach route to other major cities, the people of Ankh-Morpork flock to participate. Because it’s fun; by gods, it’s fun, even when you’re not a citizen of Ankh-Morpork. It makes you want to get up and get things done and join in with the world.
The point is that Pratchett sees each letter that is delivered as a miniature social contract, an act of participation in a wider community. By extension, the Post Office is a social hub, a publicly-funded institution that exists to facilitate community and help people connect meaningfully; that brings joy. Moist saves the Post Office, but the Post Office also saves him: being able to see how these letters matter, the changes that such tiny things make in people’s lives, gives him the tools to comprehend why his past behaviour, which saw him parasitise communities instead of participating in them, was wrong. Moist prides himself on never having used force on his victims, and he thinks that renders him somehow guiltless; but: “When banks fail, it’s not bankers who starve,” as he’s told in no uncertain terms by his golem parole officer Mr Pump.
The social energy that the Post Office pumps into the city is contrasted with the toxicity of Reacher Gilt and the Grand Trunk, who bought the clacks off its original owners for a knockdown price in a highly questionable deal, and who have proceeded to run the system into the ground. The result is that people are paying a premium for a second-rate service. And the Grand Trunk assuredly does not care about people. We’re given reason to suspect right from the start of the novel that it has had a hand in murdering one of the clacks’ original owners. And it is ruthless about its newfound competition, hiring an arsonist to destroy the Post Office.
It would be easy to read the novel as anti-technology, but I think that would be a mistaken reading: it’s not the clacks themselves that are damaging to communities, but the Grand Trunk’s inability to comprehend that the messages it carries mean nothing without the people it exploits. I think we recognise that in the closing scenes of the novel, when Moist sends a message through the clacks that acknowledges the importance of community, of human lives, and in doing so effects real change.
I can’t finish this review without mentioning Adora Belle Dearheart, Moist’s romantic interest and one of the spikiest women in Pratchett’s oeuvre. She believes that the Grand Trunk murdered her brother John, one of the original founders of the clacks. It’s easy to see how she could have been just an emotional prop for Moist: a prize for him to win at the end, a way to up the emotional stakes of his deadly competition with the Grand Trunk, a source of information – and, indeed, that’s largely what Richard Kurti and Bev Doyle’s TV film of the novel does to her. But book!Adora is more than that. There’s a wonderful scene (which unfortunately I can’t quote, since my copy of Going Postal is currently buried somewhere at the bottom of a bag) in which she and Moist meet for a date in a notoriously rough pub (her choice) and she sticks her stiletto heel through the foot of a drunk man who accosts her.
“He was only a drunk,” Moist says, or words to that effect.
“Yes, men always say that,” she replies.
It’s only a small moment, easy to miss, but it’s precisely because it’s small that it’s important: it has no other purpose in the story other than to establish character. Here’s a woman who protects herself because men don’t see why she needs to. Here’s a woman who needs no man. But might quite like one, anyway.
That’s, in microcosm, why I think this is Pratchett’s best novel: it gives space and nuance to its characters; it’s wise about what those characters face in the world; and yet it’s hopeful about the possibility of connection in that world. I’m not claiming it reaches the dizzying heights of Great Literature – it uses satire to make its moral outlines less fuzzy, its Good and Bad clearer. But it is, exactly, a joy to read.