I’m going to be honest. If I was allowed to take the complete works of one humorist with me to a desert island, that writer would be P.G. Wodehouse. For my money, he is the funniest author ever to grace the English language. And I do mean grace: his sentences are a thing of beauty. Without ever getting in his own way or using obtuse vocabulary, he managed to build perfect gems of writing… in almost every single sentence. I can’t overstate the difficulty of managing that. Sometimes you just want to write a sentence to get you from point A to pint B, but Wodehouse never allowed himself that.
If I had to keep ranking them, the second on my list would be Douglas Adams. The perfect distillation of the English sense of humor. Sadly, his oeuvre is too small to keep me entertained for an indeterminate period of time out in the south seas after a shipwreck but it is more intense. He is more laugh-out-loud funny than Wodehouse is.
But though he doesn’t top my list on the pure humor and entertainment front, Terry Pratchett is by far the best novelist of my three favorite humorists. He was the man who picked up the torch left by his predecessors and decided that he would not only write humor for humor’s sake, but he would break Wodehouse’s rule about writing a novel and make the books about something. And they would be funny.
So, you get social conscience and human foibles and difficult topics with your humor.
I’ve read widely, and I’m here to tell you that only Pratchett has managed to handle that particular volatile mix without having it blow up in his face.
Most humorists fall into two camps: the ones that exploit the human condition for a few laughs and the ones who attempt to make us care. The first group doesn’t really give a damn about humans as a group (or at least they aren’t there to make us think about humanity). They just want their humor to be relatable enough so you’ll laugh at the right time. The second group is usually preachy, holier-than-thou and so, sooooo concerned. They are anything but funny.
Pratchett pulls it off. You end up caring deeply about the issues in his book without ever having the sense that the writer is obsessed, and that the issues have taken over his work. (actually, this happens to issue-driven books in any genre, not just humor. When the agenda pushes the plot and characters aside, it’s a recipe for disaster).
So it’s with great sadness that I am reading the final few Pratchett books for the first time. One can enjoy a book upon re-reading, but you never have the same sheer joy of discovery as you did the first time you encountered the words. Since his death, a Pratchett book that I hadn’t read before became a priceless treasure.
Over the last year, I’ve consumed three of those treasures.
A Blink of the Screen is a rare treat. It collects Pratchett short stories. Some of them we’ve all read before, but many are early work published in tiny magazines or very local newspapers. They show a master at work before he was a master, with flashes of the genius that made him world-famous, but without the skill at weaving it all together. Still, there are some gems in here, and punchlines that will make you chortle. I enjoyed it.
Snuff made me even sadder. It’s a Discworld novel. If having any unread Pratchett book is a treasure, a Discworld book is like having the Crown Jewels and the Romanoff treasure all at once. To make things even better, this is a Sam Vimes book.
A side note about Vimes. While there are many amazing characters on the Discworld, Vimes became the most important of all after Pratchett discovered him halfway through the series. He represents the everyman, but also the fatalist. I have a friend who swears by the witches, but it’s Vimes who serves as the backdrop to Pratchett’s most mature work. I like him even more than I like the Luggage and Death, and that’s saying quite a bit.
The only consolation I had when I finished this one was the knowledge that Raising Steam is still safely buried somewhere in my TBR pile.
The last book of the three I had to hand was The Shepherd’s Crown. The Tiffany Aching books fall in the Young Adult category and are a lot less funny. Pratchett’s sense of humor is still there in the background, but these aren’t meant to be laugh-out-loud funny, but a coming-of-age story for a young witch growing into her powers. All of Pratchett’s humanity is on display in these, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them to someone out for a laugh. However, it is to Pratchett’s eternal credit that he manages to make a Young Adult story aimed at girls compelling to a not-particularly-young adult male who (as attested to by earlier entries) is more likely to pick up a spy thriller than a book about a teenage witch.
I don’t think we’ll ever see another writer quite like this one for a while.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer. He has a comic fantasy novel entitled The Malakiad coming out on March 22nd (it can be pre-ordered through this link). If you enjoyed reading Pratchett, you will likely enjoy this one. Also, the title comes from a very rude word in Greek, so there’s that.