Moist Lipwig (yes, that's his name, and he's heard all the jokes) is facing something of a dilemma. On the morning he is due to be executed for sundry crimes (extortion, fraud, etc.), Lipwig receives an offer from Vetinari, ruler/dictator of Ankh-Morpork. It is an offer that spells an alternative future for him, a slightly longer (if arguably more dangerous) one: to return the city's Post Office from its current parlous state to its former glory.
Since this is Going Postal, the 29th instalment in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, the current parlous state means a ruined, looted Office, filled with mountains of letters so long undelivered that they've begun to whisper to each other in their desperate need to fulfil their purposes, and convey their messages. It means a total of two employees - deceptively-mild apprentice Stanley, who has an all-consuming passion for collecting pins, and ancient postman Mr Groat, whose distrust of modern medicine has led him concoct a host of terrifying home-made remedies, including but not limited to wearing sulphur insoles.
"Enough!" said the doctor. "Mr Lipwig, there are times when we humble practitioners of the craft of medicine have to stand aside in astonishment. Quite a long way aside, in the case of Mr Groat, and preferably behind a tree. [...] I can quite see why an attack by a banshee would be so easily shrugged off. Mr Groat is probably unkillable by normal means, although I advise you not to let him take up tap-dancing."
It means going up against the corrupt owners of the Clacks (messaging towers that work by semaphore-esque signalling, introduced several novels back with a considerable effect upon the Discworld's communications). And it means a golem, Mr Pump, assigned to bring him back if he should try to welch on the deal.
Many of the elements that Pratchett does so well are on display: fantasy as satire (the clacks are, of course, shorthand for the deleterious effects of privatisation), an everyman hero and a clever, no-nonsense heroine/love interest, the teeming, scheming joy that is the city of Ankh-Morpork, throwaway gags that morph into plot points (the Smoking Gnu, anyone?), Vetinari being his usual near-omniscient self (Ankh-Morpork runs on a One Man, One Vote system - Vetinari is the Man, and he has the Vote), and more new gods:
...Anoia, a minor goddess of Things That Stick in Drawers.*
* Often, but not uniquely, a ladle, but sometimes a metal spatula or, rarely, a mechanical egg-whisk that nobody in the house admits to ever buying. [...] She also eats corkscrews.
Above all, this is a fantasy world that lives, breathes, and develops. Ankh-Morpork's social and (multi)cultural transformation continues with the calm, ongoing emancipation of the golems ("the most socially-responsible revolution the world has ever seen"), while technological innovations also bring tangible change, both to the city and to the way the story is told, most obviously in Lipwig's use of the Discworld's first newspaper, the Ankh-Morpork Times (first seen four books ago in The Truth), to fight his battle with the clacks' overlords.
The problem is that it has all become a little too comfortable and familiar. This is not a bad thing per se - familiar Pratchett is still more than worth the reading time - but it is disappointing from an author who has brought us such anarchic, inventive delights in the past. There are plenty of laughs and the usual shrewd observation of humanity, but we've seen the basic shape of this tale before, and done much better, in The Truth (and others); with its whodunnit structure, it feels like a Watch novel (albeit one where the Watchmen make only a brief appearance), and we've been given those in spades of late. Furthermore, Moist Lipwig is not one of Pratchett's most engaging protagonists - he's really only an underwritten vehicle for the novel's themes - and his redemption is never really in question.
Looking back over the series, however, it is clear that Pratchett has a habit of falling into holding patterns. There were the early books where the Dungeon Dimensions seemed to be breaking through every other week; there was the middle period, where the stories alternated faithfully between the witches of Lancre, Death and family, and the Watch. Lately, Ankh-Morpork social issues and the Watch have overtaken everyone else, and the peril has taken on much more human dimensions (the bad guys no longer want to destroy the world so much as run little pockets of it). Along the way, however, some of the thrill has been lost. The Discworld isn't staying static - but it isn't going through any true upheaval anymore, either. Even as incremental change takes place in the world, the basic formula of how a Discworld novel unfolds seems to become ever more fixed: we return to same characters, or pale variations upon the old types, the same structure, the same kind of conclusion. The semi-sentient letters of Going Postal - and the attendant theme of communication and the purpose of words - are a marvellous idea, but I cannot help but feel that Pratchett would have done much more with them, once upon a time.
I concur with Abigail Nussbaum that the Discworld is overdue some sort of shake-up: I'd like to see what would happen if Vetinari was truly tested, or even killed off (What Would Carrot Do?); most of all, I'd like to see an excursion outside the Ankh-Morpork milieu, geographically and thematically. I continue to love the novels, and buy each one faithfully, but I do long for a return to some truly daring storytelling. And more from Death, please!
Caveats aside, Going Postal was still a hugely enjoyable read. The same cannot be said for Mo Yan's Red Sorghum (itself the reason Going Postal skipped up my TBR queue in the first place - I needed something to cleanse my palette). This didn't work for me at all, unfortunately. A multi-generational, fictional exploration of the 1920s/30s war experience in rural China that came plastered with plaudits (and has been made into a film), I must confess I found it tedious, affected, and emotionally unengaging.
The novel centres upon the exploits of the narrator's grandparents and father before, during, and after the Sino-Japanese war, recounted through a jumbled collection of snapshots and longer episodes. The structure is fractured past the point of incoherence, skittering inelegantly from one disjointed episode to another via a flashback mechanism that is rarely more subtle than, "He looked at X. It reminded him of the time when..." The longer episodes (such as the fate of "Second Grandma" at the hands of Japanese soldiers) are more successful, as they have the space to work up some momentum and thus involve the reader in the story, but all too often the events are little more than combat anecdotes about sketchily-drawn characters, most of whom are little more than a name and a distinctive physical characteristic.
The narrator's family, meanwhile, are little better off. Father is an utterly unremarkable blank slate, a non-person reacting to events with hardly any indication of emotional engagement or rational reflection for the reader to catch onto. Grandfather is a callous, contemptible thug whose promised violent death was the only thing that kept me turning pages. Only the women - particularly Grandma - have any recognisable spark to make them interesting, somewhat layered characters.
The narration staggers uneasily between first-person and character-viewpoint, usually marrying the two in a sort of ominiscient first-person perspective; thus, for example, a dying woman's unvoiced reflections are explained for us by a narrator-grandson who never met her. I realise that real books generally don't adhere to the rules of creative writing workshops, but I found the effect artificial and jarring, not to say unconvincing.
The imagery - overwhelmingly drawn from the rural setting - is ladled on without restraint or artistry. This centres around three colours: red (blood, wine, ripe sorghum, Grandma's marriage veil), black (soil, dogs, the river, graves), and green (unripe sorghum, jade, rot/decay, wine(!) in certain lights), with all the obvious connotations. In case we missed this point (unlikely; by about page 50 I never wanted to read the world 'red' ever again), there is a bizarre episode in which the family's three dogs, Red, Green and Blackie, lead a gang of feral hounds that eventually tears itself apart over a struggle for power (ooh, could this be a parable?). We even get to spend time in the dog's anthropormophised heads, to further hammer the point home.
Hated it. Probably because I'm missing all sorts of cultural paradigms (one incident in particular made much more sense to me a few days later, in the course of some unrelated reading on Chinese history) - but you can't win 'em all.