Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #314: A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett is a national treasure and the center of a massive commercial engine -- encompassing TV shows, cunningly-crafted miniatures, conventions, and other centers of economic activity pretty far removed from his books -- in his native UK, and in the more British corners of the English-speaking world. Despite the attempts of a number of well-meaning publishers, several of whom even seemed to have sensible plans and decent execution, he's never reached that level in the US.

Of course, there's no reason he would; Pratchett's writing is English down to its bones, and huge swaths of the American book-reading public simply won't be interested in either his assumptions about the world or the fact that he writes fantasy. But he did take more than twenty years to even get to the level here he probably should have been in about 1986, which took heroically misguided efforts from his first two or three publishing houses. Check out the mid-90s Harper covers, for example, if you have a strong stomach.

Pratchett's current US publisher, Doubleday, seems to have a new strategy: they'll act as if Pratchett was as massively successful here as he is there, and see if that works. In support of that, they're in the middle of a flood of the secondary Pratchett books, particularly the nonfiction: the first two volumes of The Science of Discworld have finally landed here, after a decade; The Folklore of Discworld arrived a few months back. And a brand-new collection of pretty much all of Pratchett's occasional nonfiction -- the kind of book that usually only emanates from a fiction writer several years post-mortem and from somewhere secondary like a university or small press -- showed up a couple of months back with an unlikely amount of fanfare.

It's called A Slip of the Keyboard, and it goes about halfway to replacing the old NESFA Press book Once More...with Footnotes (for those of us who had one and lost it in a flood). [1] I will not claim that it contains every single non-fictional word that Pratchett has ever published, but it's definitely very close: he's always focused on novels, so this is the vast bulk of it.

Slip is divided into three main sections, essentially about the craft & business of writing, about Pratchett's childhood & random thoughts, and about the things that make him angry -- lately, his early-onset Alzheimer's and his subsequent battle to make assisted suicide legal and acceptable in the UK. So it starts light and fun, wanders through some very minor works commissioned for some very silly reasons, and then turns dark and, in a quiet English way, demanding. Serious Pratchett fans will definitely love the first two-thirds of Slip; it all has his characteristic tone and style, so only the most zealous fiction-lovers will be disappointed by the lack of plot and continuing characters.

That last third, though, is all about the things that Pratchett has spent thirty years avoiding in Discworld: diminishment, real loss, the kind of death that isn't a funny guy in a long robe, but the end of all things. Discworld is popular fiction, which means it's usually structured like a tragedy with a happy ending. Pratchett's life, like all real lives, will not have a happy ending: he may live for many years, and the treatments for his condition may outpace it for a decade or three, and he may write many more wonderful books. But, however it comes, he will die -- and the end of Slip of the Keyboard is all about his coming to terms with that, and demanding the right to do it on his own terms. In Discworld terms, this is a Pratchett book where the things from the Dungeon Dimensions get out and eat everybody in the last chapter.

These are the nonfiction pieces Pratchett has to offer; this is what life has handed him. And he has faced all of it with wit and panache and a much stiffer spine than we might have expected: he's smart and cutting and honest even when writing about the way he wants to die. A Slip of the Keyboard might not be all ha-ha, as some Discworld fans would want, but it's more honest and real book because of that, more truly the story of Pratchett's real life and struggles. He remains a wonderful role model as a patient with a degenerative disease as he was as a writer and thinker for the last four decades.

[1] The other half of that replacement is presumably coming in the form of A Blink of the Screen, the companion short-fiction volume, which will hit stores in March.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

No comments:

Post a Comment