I have to admire Pratchett for his continuous innovation in the Discworld series. After more than 30 books and two decades of writing, he still had the imagination to construct new novel sequences with new groups of characters. I guess he had to keep things interesting for himself. In this last patch of Discworld novels he started the young adult sequence featuring Tiffany Aching, and three books about a slippy con man with the glorious name of Moist von Lipwig. Going Postal (2004) is his introduction. Because these are new characters, readers new to Pratchett can start right here.
Just when Moist von Lipwig is about to be hanged for his fraudulent practices, the Patrician intervenes and makes Moist an offer he cannot refuse: become head postmaster at the defunct Ankh-Morpork post office and breathe new life into it. A clay golem by the name of Mr. Pump accompanies him as his parole officer. What he finds at the post office building is mountains of letters covered in protective layers of pigeon guano, an elderly Junior Postman named Tolliver Groat and hints of old secrets.
Moist, as a professional swindler but deep at heart a decent guy, recognises that half of the work is making people believe that the post office is back in business again, and making people believe things is what he is good at. The story has some similarities to The Truth (2000) a few years earlier in which a Mr de Worde invents the printing press. That story might as well have starred Moist but Pratchett hadn’t invented him yet. Moist is more interesting than De Worde; having a lovable bastard quality to him and an enterprising energy.
Going Postal is quite a lighthearted novel compared to the previous (adult) Discworld novels of Monstrous Regiment (sexism, war) and Night Watch (class struggle, revolution, violence). Pratchett no longer sounds so biting and angry as he did in those books. He has a lot of fun with Moist and the little cult-like band of postmen Moist finds himself in. The old Groat is like a crusty old mariner and the young Stanley is an obsessed pin collector, and with Stanley, Pratchett lovingly ridicules the mindset of obsessive collectors.
All in all it’s a cute little story. I can’t remember any other book about a swindler trying to make a post office work, except perhaps some escapades of Locke Lamora in Scott Lynch’s series that have the same kind of roguish enterprising quality. Pratchett is a master storyteller, letting the story unfold in a smooth, entertaining way, albeit a bit on the slow side. Also recommended for fans of the golems and of Vetinari.
As an aside: this might be the last Pratchett book for me. That may sound strange after the positive review I just gave, but I’ve always been ambivalent about his books. The series as a whole is unquestionably brilliant, but I always have great trouble pushing through the books, even though I think they are clever and I admire Pratchett’s wit. There is something about the comedy and the silliness that makes my mind go: “this story is not important and neither is the world nor the characters”. I’m reading it for the wordplay and the penmanship, mostly, but never feel invested. I’m always feeling the lack of some forward momentum, and after finishing them they disappear completely from my mind until years later when I suddenly remember that the series exists. For now I have removed it from my TBR list but who knows, a few years down the road I might feel a sudden urge to pick up the next one.
The 2010 Going Postal TV mini-series
Produced by the British television channel Sky, this life-action two-parter is quite good. It follows the book closely; individual scenes and lines are taken directly from Pratchett’s work, but at a slightly higher pace. Charles Dance is cast perfectly as Lord Vetinari and Claire Foy as Adora Dearheart. The guy who plays Moist, Richard Coyle, I wasn’t familiar with, but he has a long career in television and does the job well.
And with great relief I can say that the clacks system is interpreted very well and the golems don’t look ridiculous (or only a little bit). In some ways they tried to improve on the book by making Moist’s personal growth clearer and his wooing of Adora has a lot more drama to it. These additions are in some parts inferior to what Pratchett came up with, but it gives Adora and actress Claire Foy a much more active role in the story and there’s nothing wrong with that. The additions are only visible if you are familiar with the book chapter by chapter, line by line (here it helps that I’ve just read the book). The series is perfect for a dreary Sunday afternoon.