Terry Pratchett Book Club

Terry Pratchett Book Club: Reaper Man, Part I

Death is taking a different sort of holiday this time. We’re coming face to face with the Reaper Man.

Summary

The Auditors of Reality meet and decide that Death has gotten too much of a personality, and that means he should be removed from his job. Death comes across his own hourglass and is told about this state of affairs. He tells Albert and promises to recommend him to the next Death, then climbs onto Binky and leaves his realm. Meanwhile, Windle Poons has reached the end of his life and the Librarian gathered all the wizards together to give him his proper Going-Away party. The Bursar keeps an eye on the time, and Windle goes just a little late, but the wizards assembled are confused because Death himself doesn’t show up as he’s supposed to. Windle looks around a bit, but no one is there to get him, so he goes back to his body several hours later, gets up, and starts walking around. (Being back in his body means he has total control over it, but that means he has to think about every process of his body too.) He comes upon wizards during a meal and explains to them that he’s sort of un-dead, and that he doesn’t much care for it, and they need to do something about that.

The wizards argue amongst each other about how to handle the undead. At the same time, Poons leaves the University and makes his way about the city, asking for help from Sergeant Colon in trying to drown himself (Colon doesn’t realize that’s the goal). Throat Dibbler also makes his way to Colon to ask about his storage unit, which is suddenly home to quite a lot of snow globes. Poons is trying to think of other ways to kill himself when he’s threatened by thieves; he scares them and gets stabbed for his trouble. Then he moves on to the Shades, entranced by the life and verve he perceives there (he’s rarely ever left the university in his life). People find him too frightening when they see his eyes and so, dejected, he heads back to the school. The wizards all jump him and try to banish him with garlic. He apologizes for the fact that it doesn’t work and heads to bed. Then all the wizards jump him in his room and try to banish him with various religious artifacts. Poons apologizes that it doesn’t work again, and they leave him be. The screws on his door handle unscrew themselves.

The next day the wizards decide to bury Windle at a crossroad with a stake driven through him, and block traffic trying to do it. They only end up pretending to put celery through him and then board him up in a coffin. Poons finds an ad on the inside for the Fresh Start Club on the inside and decides that he should take matters into his own hands and find Death. Death, in the meantime, has arrived near a farm with a sign posted asking for help. He meet Miss Flitworth, who posted the sign, and she agrees to take him on. Through a series of awkward questions, Death decides upon the name Bill Door and agrees to work for sixpence a week and sleep in the barn. Back at the university, Ridcully’s cruet of spices and sauce raises into the air and explodes and the screws go everywhere. This also happens to the screws for the chandelier, which falls on the table. The guard captain shows up and demands they come to the Patrician, who is having a similar problem and assumes the wizards must have something to do with it.

This is all occurring because, without Death present to take away life force when it’s complete, there’s nowhere for all the energy to go, resulting in poltergeist activity. The wizards head toward the palace. A medium by the name of Evadne Cake makes contact with the dead. Poons comes up through the ground in the University garden and apologizes to the dwarf gardener, Modo, who isn’t the least bit bothered.

Commentary

The thing that’s great about Reaper Man as a second book about Death is that where Mort was about the idea of Death having a family, Reaper Man is essentially a book about Death as a broad-reaching concept that permeates every facet of reality. Everything dies, and all sentient creatures are aware of that fact, and that knowledge holds a constant, niggling spot in our consciousness (or subconscious). So this book is devoted to considering the many different ways that we talk and think about and personify Death.

Which is sort of like Pratchett taking a flashlight to the back of his own skull, really.

As the result, the opening of the book brings up dozens of different references to death and dying as a concept: references to Azrael, hauntings from spirits and poltergeists, Baron Samedi, vampires, rites for the dead, and so on. But the real cleverness of this setup comes from all the world building done up to this point: Because wizards expect to be greeted by Death directly, and because the last Discworld book involved lots of wizards shuffling about ineffectively while old Windle looked on and shouted Victorian slang phrases, the roots of this whole circus were laid down ages ago. Pratchett’s spectacular knack for writing entire groups of these weirdos correcting each other and ignoring each other and misinterpreting each other always makes for an entertaining read. Put five wizards in a room and we’re guaranteed a good time, even if the poor Bursar is having a mental breakdown over the advent of the undead.

The Bursar’s aside remembering Hogswatch Eve is, of course, extremely ironic to read if you know what’s coming for Death down the line—but moreover, it lays the groundwork for Hogfather effortlessly. (I’m guessing because Hogfather wasn’t conceived yet; I’d imagine that this aside got written and then earmarked for later as something to expound upon, et voilà.) We’re rounding the corner on one of Pratchett’s central pieces of mythos as an author and a thinker, how humans catalogue and construct rules and meanings to order reality, and how that is probably more relevant to human experience than anything else about us. Recognizing this link between waiting for the Hogfather and waiting for Death to arrive is key string linking these thoughts together.

Sidebar: The thing about Windle having “gimlet eyes” is an old phrase that means someone is giving you a piercing stare, which is an interesting way of suggesting how off-putting he’s become to the living due to being undead. This led to me thinking about what the phrase is actually making reference to, and I thought “well, it must mean the tool and not the cocktail,” which unsurprisingly turned out to be correct. Imagining someone having irises in the shape of a gimlet tool is way scarier than a piercing stare, however. I think I’m going with that image.

And with that, we’ll get to more about Bill Door and ghostly activity next week.

Asides and thoughts:

  • The title is obviously a reference to Repo Man the movie, which isn’t exactly related to the plot here, but is exactly the right vibe to be parodied in a Discworld title.
  • There is nothing quite so evocative as the Auditors being figures who “didn’t need to speak. They just changed reality so that they had spoken.”
  • I’m a ways off from one hundred and thirty like old Windle, but the idea of single days stretching out forever while larger groupings of days just vanish is pretty much how time works once you hit adulthood.
  • Thing is I’ve always been very attached to Peter Pan, and in Barrie’s book, Peter says that dying would be a great adventure, and then Death says that to Albert and… I’m having a lot of feelings about that. About the callback, but also about Death being likened to Peter Pan.
  • Look, the point is, I would try Ridcully’s Wow-Wow Sauce and I’m not ashamed to admit that in the slightest. (I realize that it contains all the necessary components for gunpowder, and I’d still do it. That might make it more alluring, honestly. I like hot sauce too much.)

Pratchettisms:

The imperative is felt by deep-sea beings who have never seen the sun and urban humans whose only connection with the cycles of nature is that their Volvo once ran over a sheep.

He was one hundred and thirty. It occurred to him that for most of his life he’d been an old man. Didn’t seem fair, really.

It swings with a faint whum-whum noise, gently slicing thin rashers of interval from the bacon of eternity.

“I’m damn sure I’ve got no iron goblins in my blood,” said the Senior Wrangler.

Windle Poons wandered through the crowds like random shot on a pinball table.

Mustrum Ridcully, Archchancellor of the Unseen University, was a shameless autocondimentor.

The guard captain looked the Archchancellor up and down with the expression of one to whom the word “civilian” is pronounced in the same general tones as “cockroach.”

Next week we read up to “COULD YOU FETCH ME A STEEL?”

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