If we knew when we were going to die, people would lead better lives.
IF PEOPLE KNEW WHEN THEY WERE GOING TO DIE, I THINK THEY PROBABLY WOULDN’T LIVE AT ALL.
In which I continue with my reading of Terry Pratchett, focusing on the Death novels. Reaper Man is the second Death novel, i.e., a Discworld novel featuring Death as a main character. In Mort, Death took on an apprentice so that he could go off and try to experience human emotion for himself. In Reaper Man, it turns out that Death has been fired by his boss Azrael and will now himself die. Before that can happen, Death returns to the human world to live and die as they do, but in typical Pratchett and Discworld fashion, a whole lotta other problems are going to arise related to Death’s predicament. While Pratchett excels at creating truly zany characters and problems for them to wrestle, this novel also emphasizes life itself, what happens when there is an over abundance of it, and what a waste it is to obsess with death when you’ve still got life in you.
As mentioned above, Death discovers that he has been sacked due to personality issues (ie, he has developed a personality and a reality that are incompatible with his job). Death takes his personal timer, which shows his sand running out, and opts to hire himself out as a farm laborer. He is, after all, pretty good with a scythe. While he works on the aging Miss Flitworth’s farm, going by the alias Mr. Bill Door, he finds himself trying to fit in with the local agricultural community and getting to know Miss Flitworth, too. There are some very funny scenes where “Bill” learns to participate (badly) in the local recreational pursuits such as darts and billiards and tries to help a dyslexic rooster learn to crow properly.
The big problem facing the rest of the world is that while Death is off the job, no new “Death” has taken over. People still die, but their spirits do not depart and so both the physical world and spiritual realm are experiencing an excess of life force. Pratchett demonstrates the nuisance this creates through some very funny and entertaining characters in the bustling Discworld city known as Ankh-Morpork, particularly at Unseen University, where wizards learn their stuff and have great dinners. It is at one of these dinners that the first inkling of trouble arises. Windle Poons, 130 year old professor, is having a going away party, as in “the big going away,” as in “rest in peace.” Everyone at the university, including Windle, know that it’s his time, and they’ve arranged a lovely banquet to send him off. Windle does indeed die at the party, as expected, but something about it just doesn’t feel right. Sure enough, Windle arises from his bier, feeling better than he ever did when alive. His senses are sharper than ever and his strength is beyond belief. Much to his embarrassment, Windle has become a zombie.
Windle’ s story line is a rip roaring delight because, of course, he’s just one of the many dead who are not dead. The city is overrun with poltergeists and the local prince calls on the wizards and priests to try to figure out what is happening. The university officials — the Archchancellor, Dean, Bursar and Senior Wrangler — are full of pomposity and snark, insecurities and the secret desire to open a can of whoop-ass on a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, as Windle wanders the city, trying to get dead, he discovers an “undead rights” group which includes a very shy boogeyman, a couple of middle class vampires, and a reverse wolf man. This story line in Ankh-Morpork is hilarious and I couldn’t do it justice if I had to explain it all. I’ll just add that it also involves a groundskeeper with extraordinary composting ability, a small medium named Mrs. Evadne Cake, and renegade snow globes and shopping carts. It is a wild ride! And yes, if the whole Death business doesn’t get sorted, the world could end.
As in the other Death novels, Pratchett makes Death something to laugh at and not to fear, which I find refreshing. The relationship between Death and Miss Flitworth is simply a delight. In addition to the funny moments, there is a sweetness there that comes to a completely charming resolution in the end. Yet again, Pratchett manages to make Death seem like a pretty decent guy who means well, sometimes gets things wrong, but is not trying to threaten anyone. He is actually quite gentle, lacking the “drama” that the new Death seems to favor. And through him and Windle, the dead man who isn’t dead and would like to be, we get the message that “life is something you acquire.” Reaper Man is a better novel than Mort, and a step toward the excellent Hogfather. Onward!