The Short Version: The world was created. This is generally regarded as an only so-so idea – but the end is coming! The Antichrist is born unto… an utterly ordinary human family (thanks to a clerical mixup with the babies). And one angel & one demon, friends over the millennia, decide that maybe we don’t need the end of days to happen – but they’ve gotta find the kid first. Hijinks ensue. The world, such as it is, goes on.
The Review: The death of Sir Terry Pratchett is one of the greatest blows to literature (and humor and, really, the human race) that I can imagine. We all knew it was coming – he was very honest about that – but for it to actually happen and so soon ripped a void into the universe.
So naturally, I felt like I needed to go be with him literarily for a while. A Discworld re-read has been on my mind but that’s quite a project at this point so I thought why not Good Omens? I read it for the first time before I’d ever read any other works by Neil and I think it colored his work for me, in a good way: I could always trace the connection he had to Terry, that wry British humor and anger and joy-of-imagination. I now love Neil’s work nearly as much as I do Terry’s – and so it was a delight to see them together.
The funny thing is (as they’ve both said time and again) it’s nearly impossible to tell who wrote which bits. Some lines have been attributed (“to spoon and, on one memorable occasion, fork” was apparently a Terry line) but any guess on the reader’s part is equally as likely to be wrong as it is to be correct. This shows a true synthesis of writerly talents, like Stephen Collins and V’ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture: they are one brain here with all the best bits from both halves. Their friendship, the sort of blending of two titanic talents who actually also like each other, just doesn’t come along all that often – and the resulting book, cult classic that it is, is perhaps even more of a rarity.
If you’re even a little bit familiar with the works of either Mssrs, you’ll pretty much be quickly on board with the style and the patter. If you’re not, I’m almost at a loss as to how to explain it: the humor and heart are so closely intertwined and run so deeply through the core of the novel that they’re inextricable. The humor is sharp and sometimes angry – but the amazing thing is that it never attacks with malicious intent; it never misses the point that the target, at the end of the day, is human. Fallible. So even the worst tendencies of humanity are sent up here with an understanding that, at the end of the day, we’re all only human. And perhaps whatever ‘plans’ might exist for us are, in fact, only as important as we make them out to be. We laugh because we see ourselves, our hopes, our dreams, our fears, our flaws. Even in the guise of an angel and a demon, we see ourselves.
Crowley and Aziraphale are two of their creators’ most inspired creations: the devil and the angel who end up realizing they’re a bit more like each other (and like each other a bit more) than their masters might like. Juxtaposed with scenes of hilarious espionage in St. James Park (the ducks!), the parallels between human and divinity are all the more clear. And who wouldn’t want to hang out with those guys? Aziraphale is a book collector, Crowley a consumer of the finest things in life. They’re exactly as flawed as we can hope our angels and our devils might be – after all, straight up ineffable perfection is rather boring, isn’t it?
It’s funny to try and think about this book critically at all. For one thing, there’s nothing to really be critical of, but for another, it’s hard to actually capture the book in your mind as a book. In the hands of any other authors, you’d think there were too many characters – “why not focus on just A & C?” I can hear someone complaining – but P & G are taking on a full breadth of humanity. There’s a witch, of course, and a witchfinder. There are just-immediately-pre-pubescent children (aged 11) who deal with all those predictable big questions that start cropping up around that age. There are old people, young people, people confused about their age… and they’re all, every single one of them, necessary – for two reasons, in fact. For one, they are funny: everybody gets at least one good laugh line. For another, they’re real. They populate this strange world where the Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse appear (by the way: Death, happily, still speaks in ALL CAPS even here on Earth) and where a single book of prophecy has been correct for 300 years – and they make all of those strange things palatable by their humanity. The strangest things can be handled so long as you’ve got something human to ground you.
That’s not to say that the book is all sunshine and roses. There are some horrifying moments – the biker crash is one of the coldest things either author has ever written, it’s purpose all the more important for its unflinching seriousness – and the specter of the Four Horsepersons hangs over all of us, every day. It’s funny to think of War as a staggeringly sexy woman who causes complete chaos wherever she goes… but only if you let yourself think about it superficially. The minute you dig into those scenes even just a little bit, as the laughter subsides, you realize how easily swayed human beings can be. How close we are to destruction and annihilation – how close the wilderness really is. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that we were out there. And Gaiman and Pratchett both, in perhaps their biggest similarity and their most important facet as writers, recognize that and seek to explore it. Humanity is endlessly fascinating – that’s why nobody Up or Down There could really want it to stop. What’d be the fun in that?
Rating: 5 out of 5. Although it isn’t, for me, as “classic” as some of the Discworld books or American Gods, it’s perfect in its own right. Neither author had come fully into their own just yet, although the signs were all there – and there is a roughness to the book that you just don’t get anymore in most novels. People try too hard to sand all that roughness down. But for me, this wobbly table of a book is all the better for the wobble: it keeps you on your toes, trying to balance, and threatening to topple the whole thing because you’ve laughed too hard. It’s a meditation on good and evil, on nature vs. nurture, on humanity vs. divinity, and on sixteen different ways you can laugh embarrassingly in public. What greater purpose could there be?