Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, 1990

Between them, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett account for a huge chunk of all significant fantasy fiction in the past twenty years or so. I've actually only read one book from each author (Gaiman: Stardust, Pratchett: The Color of Magic), but I enjoyed them both. Pratchett's wacky wordplay and Gaiman's mordantly dark humor don't seem like they would mesh well; nevertheless, they collaborated on a comic fantasy novel, Good Omens, that's gained a reputation as the next Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Books written by two authors tend to be a tad messy and Good Omens is no exception, but with two authors as accomplished as Gaiman and Pratchett, it turns out to be a damn funny mess.

The novel concerns the rise of the Antichrist and the coming of Armageddon, classic horror-novel cliches. Since it's Gaiman and Pratchett at the wheel, horror turns into comedy, as Crowley, a demon who did not fall so much as Saunter Vaguely Downwards, and Aziraphale, a book-loving angel, team up to find the Antichrist before he can bring around the end of the world. It's a wacky universe where the Four Horsemen have motorcycles, Famine is a crash-diet guru and Pestilence has been replaced by Pollution ever since the discovery of penicillin.

Since it's a comic novel, the most important thing is whether it's funny. And it is. Extremely funny. A lot of the humor is incredibly witty, a lot of it is just completely bizarre and some of it is simple bonk-on-the-head physical comedy. At least 70% of the jokes hit home, and there are a moments of comic invention almost as inspired as Douglas Adams' infamous Marvin the Paranoid Android. In this segment, amateur witchhunter Newt is approached by aliens who have just landed beside his car:

The other two ignored its frantic beeping and walked over to the car quite slowly, in the worldwide approved manner of policemen already compiling the charge sheet in their heads. The tallest one, a yellow toad dressed in kitchen foil, rapped on Newt's window. He wound it down. The thing was wearing the kind of mirror-finished sunglasses that Newt always thought of as Cool Hand Luke shades.

"Morning, sir or madam or neuter," the thing said. "This your planet, is it?"

The other alien, which was stubby and green, had wandered off into the woods by the side of the road. Out of the corner of his eye Newt saw it kick a tree, and then run a leaf through some complicated gadget on its belt. It didn't look very pleased.

"Well, yes, I suppose so," he said.

The toad stared thoughtfully at the skyline.

"Had it long, have we, sir?" it said.

"Er. Not personally. I mean, as a species, about half a million years. I think."

The alien exchanged glances with its colleague. "Been letting the old acid rain build up, haven't we, sir?" it said. "Been letting ourselves go a bit with the old hydrocarbons, perhaps?"

"I'm sorry."

"Could you tell me your planet's albedo, sir?" said the toad, still staring levelly at the horizon as though it was doing something interesting.

"Er. No."

"Well, I'm sorry to have to tell you, sir, that your polar ice caps are below regulation size for a planet of this category, sir."
---(pages 183-184)

There's an unquestionable unevenness to the novel. The individual segments and jokes are mostly solid, but they don't sync up. It's often easy to identify who was writing what section; the two authors rarely seem to meld together in a streamlined way. There's a choppiness that just never translates to a smooth read.

The novel's scope also contributes to its odd sense of disconnectedness. There are several separate subplots going at once, and they're not all equal. The dynamic between Crowley and Aziraphale is easily the funniest in the book; frankly, the novel might have been better if it focused more on them.

The subplot involving the Four Horsemen is also hilarious and marvelously creative. Anyone who doesn't find the scene with the copycat bikers marvelously funny needs a checkup. Shadwell, a borderline-insane witchfinder who runs a one-man army, is also a creative hoot. It's stuff like this that happens when you get geniuses like Pratchett and Gaiman together.

It's the sections involving Adam, the eleven-year old Antichrist, and his gang of neighborhood kids that really weighs the novel down. These segments are just awkward--they don't fit with the rest of the novel, tonally, and are highly grating to boot. The kids' exaggerated speech and overly "cute" mannerisms make for the novel's only groan-worthy scenes.

Okay, the ending is a bit of a groaner, too, since Pratchett and Gaiman seem unsure whether to go dramatic or comedic, so they seem to compromise on an uncomfortable mixture. It's sort of an off note for the book to end on, even though I did like Crowley and Aziraphale casting their lot together.

Good Omens is a mess, no doubt, but it's the kind of mess that's acceptable because its high point are so high. It's a book that was probably a blast for the authors to write and some of their obvious enthusiasm seeps through. GO is a lot of fun and even though it could have been cleaner, it's still worth it, if only for the Four new Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Grievous Bodily Harm, Cruelty to Animals, Really Cool People and Things Not Working Properly, Even After You've Given Them A Good Thumping.

NEXT UP: Gritty crime, with George Pelecanos's The Turnaround.

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