You will not Return this Book to Sender—because it’s hilarious and awesome!
Moist Von Lipwig is the name of the main character in this 33rd Novel of the Discworld series. That pretty much sets the stage for everything else. Grab hold of your hat and hang on for the ride.
Moist is a talented and clever conman who has had a very successful criminal career on a sort of “middling” level. That is to say, he’s a step up from pickpocket but a step down from the clowns running multinational corporations. He’s spent a vast majority of his life playing alter egos that suit his various (and less than altruistic) endeavors. So much so, that you realize a fair way through, that the man does not really know himself. He’s been so busy playing make-believe in order to earn a fast buck that he really hasn’t ever figured out who he really is or what he cares about. And in that, we see the true genius of Terry Prachett’s writing. The story of the protagonist is a redemptive tale that is wrapped up in the polka dotted humor and witticism of a very clever satirist. We manage to care very deeply for Moist and his struggles, which are both outward and inward.
The story primarily centers around the city of Ankh-Morpork and its communications system. The book opens with the protagonist being saved from death, by a benevolent tyrant—the city patrician—Lord Vetinari. Although Vetinari is a dictator, he seems to be shrewd enough to care about the well-being of his citizens. Vetinari has identified a troubling problem with the mode of communication in the city; in which the majority of the story takes place. Swift communications between the citizenry are being conducted through a privately run utility known as the “Clacks,” which is basically a system of visual telegraph towers (semaphores) that translate messages across distances using coding. Apparently, the Clacks system was “legally” taken over through a series of questionable financial maneuvers by a collective of investors known as “The Grand Trunk” who are headed by Reacher Gilt (a min of ill repute—and probably a pirate to boot!). Since the takeover, fees have gone up and service has gone down. Vetinari attempts to correct the situation by talking to The Grand Trunk and is rebuked for his efforts. The problem is that the Clacks are now the only game in town and everyone relies on them exclusively to get things done. Too big to fail….
So Vetinari schemes to even the playing field by resurrecting the ancient, defunct postal system. To do this, he conscripts our protagonist. Moist agrees to go along with the plan for appearances, until he can bide his time and figure a way to escape and return to his old scamming ways. However, the endearing, odd ball cast of characters which Moist encounters while working in and around the post office slowly start to wear him down and he develops an interest in things beyond his own selfish needs.
The cast of characters that Prachett dreams up are brilliant and memorable. Whether it’s the fire-eyed Golem parole officer who must keep tabs on the protagonist; the old-guard of anal-retentive postal workers; the slick zombie-faced lawyer; the mostly-sane former Clacks workers turned code-crackers and rabble rousers; the boisterous and bumbling stuffy-robed wizards of the Unseen University; the sulking and skulking Igor butler henchman; the disturbing pigeon-eating banshee; or the chain-smoking golem-rights activist/love interest—you fall in love with them all. Everyone comes alive. An unforgettable cast. Sometimes there are heartfelt moments of kind and generous acts, other times you revel in the satire that floods through the streets of Ankh-Morpork. Everyone is a character and a caricature and always faintly familiar.
Moist is quick-witted and all to willing to up the stakes. A bad habit from his scheming days, but it serves him well in his new career as postman as he finds himself pitted against the biggest conman of them all—the head of the Clacks—Reacher Gilt. This is where we see real character growth as Moist is both awed and repulsed by the story’s chief antagonist. He is facing a distorted and much crueler mirror image of himself in dealing with Gilt. The more he learns, the more he is intrigued, and the more he is distressed. Upon meeting a truly great connoisseur of the trade (i.e. master conman) in Gilt, he sees that it is not so great a thing to aspire to. Then he questions himself and the life he has led and he wonders if there is much difference between him and Gilt. This is great character growth and the stuff of good story making.
Another great thing in this book is the inherit magic of the post office (A decidedly untraditional magical reagent). But Pratchett’s description of the place—even in its pigeon-dropping-covered-piles-of-old-letters—have all the intrigue and captivation of a haunted castle. A wonderfully original setting.
Other commentators have pointed out how well Pratchett does with word-play (even the title of the book lends itself to this). They also point out how you don’t get tired of it. It’s true. This book has many levels of humor from word-puns to deep satire pointing out the absurdities that are abundant in a capitalistic society. The Clacks system and The Grand Trunk have innumerable alliterations to phone companies and investment banking. Indeed, this book was written before the recent financial crisis that raked the world’s economies and is disturbingly prescient in many of its aphorisms. He makes you think as well as entertains you (as truly great authors do!).
Prachett really hits the spot. He is refreshingly funny and a good storyteller. The world can be a very awful place sometimes, when you look at all the problems one can suffer through during a lifetime. Yet, it is books like this one that help to put all the grim things in their proper place of absurdity.
Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes or our website.