Place vs. Place: Interesting Times

Interesting Times 2So, Interesting Times. I think we’re really getting a clear picture of just what makes a Rincewind book at this point, five works in. The Disc has produced a range of story flavours, from urban, noir dramas to subverted Shakespearean tragedies, and both of these are deeply enmeshed in the places where they occur. The smoggy, grimy streets and hidden niches of Ankh-Morpork. The gnarly ground of the Ramtop Mountains.

Rincewind stories have no place, which is partly what makes them Rincewind stories. They are prodigal road movies on paper. You don’t know where you’re going, but you’re going somewhere new.

As a rule, this means ostensibly ‘exotic’ or ‘foreign’ places, with the reader’s view consistently that of Ankh-Morpork. Consequently, Ankh and surrounding lands are the world’s heroic center and, despite all sewers and questionable odours to the contrary, its enlightened center. This is really a tricky thing in Interesting Times.

From a certain point of view, the book feels like a more mature and confident offering from Pratchett; from a different point of view, it feels a paean to an acutely uncomfortable Western view of the East that puts me in mind of golden-age Hollywood.Interesting Times is a book about revolution, about the downtrodden, and about the ‘escapes,’ such as they are. But it’s also a work of nostalgia, of warm fuzziness for the simple morality plays involving Western heroes and oppressed foreign masses, who here happen to be Asian. Can you write a book that draws on those archetypes without yourself perpetuating them? I love Pratchett. I laugh at his books. I find in them deliciously scathing commentary on race, gender, and morality. But Interesting Times takes me to task as an enthusiastic reader and makes me think critically about the story it tells. For all of the things it does well, this is a culturally problematic book.

There’s nothing really wrong with the story, and the places that we visit (always a draw in a Rincewind book) are compelling in themselves. The plot and humor feel confident. But for me there’s something that feels unanchored about Interesting Times,like it isn’t entirely confident of its grasp of place or its understanding of the people who live there. Let’s take an example. Here’s a passage from Interesting Times. I recommend reading aloud.

The hills gave way to scrubland which in turn led down to an apparently endless damp plain which contained, in the misty distance, a river so winding that half the time it must have been flowing backwards. The land was a chequerboard of cultivation. Rincewind liked the countryside in theory, providing it wasn’t rising up to meet him and was for preference happening on the far side of a city wall, but this was hardly countryside. It was more like one big, hedge-less farm. Occasional huge rocks, looking dangerously erratic, rose out of the fields.

Sometimes he’d see people hard at work in the distance. As far as he could tell, their chief activity was moving mud around. Occasionally he’d see a man standing ankle deep in a flooded field holding a water buffalo on the end of a length of string. The buffalo grazed and occasionally moved its bowels. The man held the string. It seemed to be his entire goal and occupation in life.

My sense is that this is a competently written passage compiled from a range of cultural images to support a comedic adventure narrative. Oxbow river. Patchwork landscape. Big rocks. Water buffalo. Man standing in water. Fine and good! Now let’s take a passage from an earlier Pratchett book, Equal Rites, that is similarly interested in a landscape and how a character interprets it. Again, I recommend reading aloud.

The owl stirred, fluttered up on to the little windowsill, and glided silently into the night. The clouds had cleared and the thin moon made the mountains gleam. Granny peered out through owl eyes as she sped silently between the ranks of trees. This was the only way to travel, once a body had the way of it! She liked Borrowing birds best of all, using them to explore the high, hidden valleys where no one went, the secret lakes between black cliffs, the tiny walled fields on the scraps of flat ground, tucked on the sheer rock faces, that were the property of hidden and secretive beings. Once she had ridden with the geese that passed over the mountains every spring and autumn, and had got the shock of her life when she nearly went beyond range of returning.

The owl broke out of the forest and skimmed across the rooftops of the village, alighting in a shower of snow on the biggest apple tree in Smith’s orchard. It was heavy with mistletoe.

Like Interesting Times, Equal Rites isn’t held up as a great Pratchett book, but the second passage still strikes me as that of a writer who could say considerably more about his scene, is positively brimming with images and colors, and wears them with a confident knowingness. The image contains more than the image. It contains unknown beings, undescribed parcels of land, and a sensory sharpness that doesn’t quite cohere for me in Interesting Times.

For me, Interesting Times feels like it has been assembled rather than felt. This isn’t made better by the depictions of race and culture that we get. The way people speak, their demeanor, and their naiveties all tap into a reading of Asian culture that really seems to come from problematic Western media about white heroes in foreign lands. Yes, a glance at The Annotated Pratchett tells me that this book was the work of someone who clearly knew the the relevant histories, Chinese history particularly, but the sneaking sense of shallowness is still there. I don’t necessarily buy that this place or these people are happening anywhere except in the realm of satire. It doesn’t breathe on its own. And consequently I never quite buy into the story and never feel like the outcomes matter. And by the time that we get to the end, and not Twoflower but foreign invader Cohen takes the throne, I just feel frustrated.

Still, there’s plenty to enjoy here. I have grown to like Rincewind. There are some good slices of humor and some powerful passages about aging. It’s impossible for me to actively dislike a Pratchett book. But this ain’t my favorite, man. There’s such a sense of authorial fondness for a certain kind of story that I, personally, find uncomfortable, that it was never going to be a book I loved.

And that is what makes me human and makes me a critic. It’s why we do things like blog about books or put together podcasts in which we harp on minutiae. I find great value in being able to enjoy and critique simultaneously. Maybe Pratchett is satirizing the Western imaginary of the East, maybe he’s just aiming for an adventure narrative. I can’t know. But I can appreciate what works here while still talking about the ways that it doesn’t.

Onward to The Last Continent.


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