In Praise of Pratchett: Going Postal


At a very late stage in the Discworld saga, Terry Pratchett could still surprise us with a new recurring character, though the name Moist von Lipwig has always struck me as being considerable less ‘real’ than the other denizens of the Disc. And Pratchett also established a strange new approach for this latest of his books, which furthered once more the development of Ankh-Morpork as a modern city environment.
The first thing we notice about Going Postal are the words Chapter 1. Chapter? This is not Pratchett, this is not his way, Terry Pratchett does not write in chapters because life does not come in chapters. Yet here we have it, and chapters headed with brief notes that summarise (in a properly oblique manner, reminiscent of Peter Tinniswood’s page headings) what are to come in these chapters.
And then there’s the… well, how do we describe it? This is a very detailed book, yet, in another way, it’s curiously undetailed. It takes place in Ankh-Morpork, and it features half a dozen or so of the familiar characters we expect to see in Ankh-Morpork, and yet they’re not entirely there, not in the depth we normally expect of them.
Take Sam Vimes, who is the most extreme example of this curious distance. Sam’s there in one scene, close to the climax, when the chance – created by Moist von Lipwig – falls to the Patrician to step in and have exposed the machinations of those who own, and who have exploited the Grand Trunk, the clacks system. Sam is there, but he is not in the scene. Lord Vetinari orders that Commander Vimes arrest the Directors and take them to the cells.
And that’s it. Vimes neither speaks nor is referred to as taking action. He is a ghost conjured up by Lord Vetinari’s words, but he does not ‘exist’ as the Sam Vimes we know.
It creates a two-fold effect. Firstly, it introduces an atmosphere not that far removed from the Young Adult books, in that whilst we may be in Ankh-Morpork, we are not necessarily of it. There are no descriptions, no solidity. The other is to give us an impressionistic introduction to the world of Moist von Lipwig.
Moist is a con-man, a crook. He lives to fool people, to get things out of them, to exploit their gullibility and the unpracticed greed in their souls. In a way, he’s like a walking, talking version of the National Lottery, only with less chance of hitting the jackpot. Ankh-Morpork and the familiar characters  we meet lose several degrees of their reality because that’s how they are to Moist. He’s partly a psychopath, though a strictly non-violent kind of psychopath, because other people aren’t really real to him, and this goes for the consequences of his actions, too.
When we meet him, he’s going to die. He’s been caught, tried, sentenced to hang, and this time there are no clever schemes to con his way out. So he dies. But Moist is being hung as Albert Spangler, and it’s Albert Spangler who dies, because Lord Vetinari has decided that someone with as complex a mind as Moist von Lipwig is the right person to reactivate, re-open and re-animate the Post Office.
And, despite his natural reluctance, despite his conviction that it’s impossible, Moist slowly discovers that the Patrician was, as usual, dead right.
Moist knows that he’s a tool, but what he doesn’t appreciate immediately is to what extent he’s a tool. Many of the later Discworld books show the Patrician as, in one way or another, encouraging the development of Ankh-Morpork (and by natural progression, the whole of Discworld) into a modern city, culminating, of course, in the arrival of the Industrial Revolution in Raising Steam, another Moist von Lipwig book. But Lord Vetinari is not interested in the Post Office as such, but rather as an alternative to the Grand Trunk, and a weapon with which to face its Chairman, Reacher Gilt.
Which is where Going Postal goes heavily, angrily and very effectively political.
The clacks towers appeared out of nowhere in the background to The Fifth Element. Nowadays, we think of them as the Discworld equivalent to e-mail, which signals just how fast Time has breezed by us, because to begin with, as the rhyme of the name indicates, they were Discworld’s version of the fax machine.
Either way, at a stroke, the Discworld has been brought together. The clacks towers were the cause of the Borogravia/Zenobia war in Monstrous Regiment. They’re an instrument, the instrument of change. And the Grand Trunk has a monopoly…
Pratchett is both clinical and savage as he tears capitalism apart during the course of this book. The Grand Trunk was conceived, built, created by the Dearheart family, especially Robert Dearheart, the father. It was put together by dedicated men, inspired men, geniuses in their specialised area, and it was run properly by them. They understood their business, they knew what was required to do it right, they prioritised doing it right, for the benefit of everybody.
But such people don’t have the money. They’re dreamers and practical men combined, but they’re not businessmen, so they need businessmen to run things for them, until they look up and find that the businessmen actually own everything, and they own nothing, they run nothing, they control nothing. Their only options are to watch what they’ve built fall to pieces, or to walk away.
Because the only thing the businessmen know about is money, and the only thing they care about is more money. There are always ways to make more money today, corners to be cut, expenditure to be cut, ‘efficiencies’ to be made all in the pursuit of bringing in the next five years’ income this year. That they’re destroying the actuality of the business, to the point where it won’t be there in the second year, is something they neither understand nor care about. If the worst comes to the worst and it all crashes, they’ll simply form another company, buy the old business at a knock-down price and carry on.
The people who understand, who know how things work, who take pride in a job well done have either left in disgust or else been sacked as unnecessary: I’m sorry, actually they’ve been down-sized.
Pratchett picks all this apart with forensic delight, contrasting it with those who can and do understand how things work. He puts Moist on one side, the showman, the flash man, who slowly grows up, and he emphasises things by putting Moist’s equivalent, indeed superior, in charge of the Grand Trunk.
Reacher Gilt is a pirate, he acts like a pirate, he dresses like a pirate. Reacher Gilt is Free Enterprise, overtly opposed to Government Intervention, to Public Ownership, which is an Intolerable Burden on Taxes. Reacher Gilt is Margaret Thatcher. But, in one of the wisest lines Terry Pratchett ever wrote, when Gilt talks of Freedom, it is freedom for himself and no-one else.
Gilt is capitalism rampant. His very name spells it out. Moist, who is the Patrician’s tool to ratchet open a chance to bring Gilt down, recognises an artiste in his own game, but at the same time finds that of his own accord he has to take the honest route, so as not to be Reacher Gilt. Some of that impulse is because of Spike, his pet name for Miss Adora Belle Dearheart, daughter of the cheated and broken Robert, sister of John, who died when he tried to challenge the Grand Trunk with newer and better ideas: Spike, who was a victim of one of Moist’s ‘victimless’ crimes.
Moist has to learn how to live up to the permanently angry Spike, which adds impetus to his determination not to be Reacher Gilt, but the most important part of his transformation is simply not being the man for whom nothing matters but himself, the man who doesn’t hide what he is, only his utter contempt for those who refuse to see, whilst Moist delights in the con because it’s what brings him most alive.
And it is Moist who wins because he knows and understands words and what effect they can have above and beyond truth, the words that don’t need to be legally provable because they go to the heart of what people want to believe. Once they’re spoken, then the Patrician’s form of Forensic Accounting can go in and unravel everything.
And Lord Vetinari can make a similar offer to Reacher Gilt. The Royal Mint needs looking after, transforming, re-animating. Gilt can do for that what Moist has done for the Post Office. He can do great good for others. But Gilt is Free Enterprise, he is Thatcherism incarnate, and the only freedom to be had is freedom for oneself, even if the only thing that can be done with that freedom is to refuse angels and take the other choice.
I’ve left a lot of Going Postal out of this review: most of the ingenuity, nearly all of the comedy. Neither of these are negligible. This is a very clever, very funny book. But it’s also very angry, it’s where the anger lies closest to the surface, and it’s a book that is prescient. Reading it in 2015 holds a different meaning to reading it when it was first published in 2004, before the financial crash that has twisted all our lives out of true and which the Gilts of this world have seized upon to extricate as much of everything as they can for themselves. There are lines which were funny once yet now hold a grim significance.
Pratchett could interweave deep, whole-hearted comedy into that, make it a seamless whole, but I’m nowhere near good enough to do that in a review. I like Moist von Lipwig, and Spike, and rapidly promoted Junior Postman Tolliver Groat, and Stanley, whose un-given surname surely has to be Gibbons. But I respond to Pratchett’s denunciation of those who know the value of money and of nothing else, and I share his rage.

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