I never gave it any thought until I read Pratchett’s 2012 collection of short fiction A Blink of the Screen which contains “Final Reward,” a story written in 1988 with a particularly Barthian bent.
Kevin Dogger is an author who’s made a small fortune with a series of science fiction novels about the exploits of Erdan the Barbarian. One night, after drinking too much and fighting with his girlfriend, he comes home and, out of spite, writes the final chapter of Erdan and the Serpent of the Rim, killing off his hero on the final page.
The next morning, he answers the door to find, on his doorstep, Erdan the Barbarian.
“I have come to meet my maker,” the erstwhile now deceased champion says.
(Erdan, by the way, is carrying Skung, the Sword of the Ice Gods, which, on the one hand, is able to speak, but, on the other, only says [“conversationally”], “I want to drink your blood.”)
Characters and fantasy
Throughout his long literary career, John Barth — who practices what is known as metafiction, i.e., fiction that goes beyond the idea of simply telling a story and focuses on the storyteller and the storytelling process — has had a similarly complex relationship with his characters.
In 1979, for instance, Barth published LETTERS, ostensibly an exchange of correspondence between him and various characters from his earlier novels, including Jerome Bray who appeared in two: Chimera and Giles Goat-Boy. In Chimera, published in 1972, Barth turns up in various guises amid the demi-gods of Greek myths and in the bedroom of Scheherazade, the author of famed collection of Arabian tales One Thousand and One Nights. Not only does he meet these luminaries, but, well, he gets a novel out of it — Chimera.
And what is the name that Terry Pratchett’s author-character Kevin Dogger gives to Erdan’s world? Chimera.
(Which, by the way, means “fantasy.” Which is the literary genre that Pratchett practices.)
Writing a solution
And how does Dogger solve the problem that Erdan becomes in his life? In a quintessentially Barthian way — by writing a solution (which not only sounds like Barth but also a bit like the Bible):
And the monitor was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the screen, with of course the exception of the beckoning flicker of the cursor….
Where to start?
A short story would be enough, just to create the character. Chimera already existed, in a little bubble of fractal reality created by these ten fingers.
And the character created? Kevin Dogger, a refugee from a world he found too frustrating and complicated.
Beyond Barth, A Blink of the Screen is fun journey through the evolution of Pratchett’s growth as a writer which, in fact, wasn’t much of an evolution. As the first story in the book, “The Hades Business,” shows, Pratchett didn’t need much of a learning curve.
Although he bemoans the story’s defects in a short scene-setter, the effort is amazingly good, considering that it was written in 1965 — when Pratchett was 13.
OK, it’s not the full mature Pratchett style (although maybe I mean “the full silly Pratchett style”), but there is much Pratchettian humor and cleverness here. For instance, the Devil tells an ad-man that hell is empty.
“No one’s come Down There for nearly two thousand years. Can’t think why.”
There’s even a character who speaks in capital letters. No, it’s not Death (as fans of Pratchett’s Discworld novels have come to expect). It’s God.
A Blink of the Screen displays Pratchett’s zest and flair for one-liners, funny and/or thought-provoking, as well as meaty descriptions, such as:
• A repairman’s lament: “Life can get very complicated for men in overalls who have problems with men in suits.”
• Servitude in an alternative universe: “There’s no slavery as such, except to tradition, but tradition wields a heavy lash. I mean, maybe democracy isn’t perfect, but at least we don’t let ourselves be outvoted by the dead.”
• Strong language for a witch: “But now she swore under her breath and caused small brief fires to start in the dry grass.”
• Faith: “Perhaps enough people believing something makes it real.”
• One of the vampire residents of Discworld and author of the Ankh-Morpork National Anthem: “Count Henrik Shline von Uberworld (born 1703, died, 1782, died again, 1784, and also in 1788, 1791, 1802/4/7/8, also 1821, 1830, 1861, staked 1872)”
• Two young women: “She and Nimue got along like sisters. Like sisters that get along well, I mean.”
• Listening: “Many people could say things in a cutting way, Nanny knew. But Granny Weatherwax could listen in a cutting way. She could make something sound stupid just by hearing it.”
An “ancient” saying
And then there’s this.
On page 218, in an introduction to the longish story “The Sea and Little Fishes,” Pratchett confides:
For reasons I can’t quite remember now, some years ago I invented the “ancient” saying, “The big sea does not care which way the little fishes swim,” and put it in the mouth of a character.
Not all that surprising, really. After all, Pratchett is in the fiction business.
But consider this note:
Finally, one would confess one’s creations. The old prison rhyme at the beginning and end of this book is not, alas, an ancient ditty but a new one, and was written by this author ten years ago for his movie Maidstone.
No, those two paragraphs aren’t from John Barth. They are buried deep in an afterword to the 1979 non-fiction novel The Executioner’s Song. The author: Norman Mailer.
Is Terry Pratchett a fan of Norman Mailer?
Patrick T. Reardon