The Unfranked Man

James Farley Post Office Building, New York

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett.
Corgi, 2005 (2004).

‘Yes, well, you know what we used to say: you do have to be mad to work here!’ said the Worshipful Master.

Chapter Five

The phrase which inspired the title of this novel refers to a distressing period in the US postal service when certain disgruntled postal workers were involved in mass shootings of colleagues and the public: ‘going postal’ meant resorting to extreme violence to express resentment, frustration or mental disturbance, though now it’s casually used as the equivalent of ‘going mad’ in a social situation.

In Pratchett’s hands the phrase becomes a way to focus his anger through critiquing a number of societal ills – the decimation of public services, for example, and corporate greed – while using his trademark humour not only to satirise corruption but also to portray those who might otherwise appear to be social inadequates instead of as individuals worthy of respect and admiration.

But our attention is focused on Moist Von Lipwig, a petty fraudster in his twenties (“I’m Moist!”) who is offered, by Lord Vetinari no less, a chance to redeem himself as the newly appointed Postmaster in Ankh-Morpork. The question we ask ourselves is, will – echoing Herodotus and the inscription on New York’s 1914 Post Office – neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stop him fulfilling his brief?

Royal West of England Academy © C A Lovegrove

As usual in the Discworld the plot is twisty and witty – and there’s even a kitty involved – but it basically boils down to the principle of setting a thief to catch a thief. Lipwig’s nemesis turns out to be Reacher Gilt, the apotheosis of every asset-stripper you can think of, a pirate of the high ds (that’s Ankh-Morpork dollars to you). Not only is he visually and punnily a compound of Edward Teach alias Blackbeard and Long John Silver but he has a mercenary cockatoo which screeches the percentage equivalent of “Pieces of eight!”

Reacher has control of the Discworld’s equivalent of the internet, a web of semaphore communication towers with Tump Tower at its centre. And in common with many such men he has pared the system to the bone, reducing efficiency and endangering lives while ignoring the principle which our conman Lipwig belatedly comes to recognise, the proposition that profit needs “to spread around the whole of society.”

Pratchett expertly keeps the story bubbling over, with an initiation ritual for Lipwig as the Unfranked Man, the surprising revival of the moribund institution, and a crisis almost precisely at the two-thirds mark. There’s a love interest for Lipwig, the chain-smoking Adora Bella Dearheart (who seems to embody the enterprise of Amelia Earhart and the intellectual shrewdness of Ada Lovelace), but though he’s infatuated with her we wonder if she comes to be merely fond of him. There are also the remnant post office workers Tolliver Groat and Stanley Howler, golems galore, a banshee, and a pair of tough coachmen whose forenames curiously echo the late Victorian writer Henry James. In fact, this in many ways is a 19th-century novel, with prefatory chapter synopses and a paucity of Pratchett’s otherwise familiar footnotes.

For me, athwart the serious messages Pratchett embeds in his stories are the quiet in-jokes that the former regional reporter fits in. Take as just one example the god Blind Io, which seems to puzzle many fans on Pratchett forums: just south of Bristol is the wonderfully named river Blind Yeo which whenever we drove over it we’d cry “Yeo-oh!” When working for Bristol’s Western Daily Press Pratchett would’ve crossed over the same bridge many a time, and the name will have stuck in his memory just as it still does in ours. This ranks as merely one of the many instances of the author “funning around” amidst engineered catastrophes and grocer’s apostrophes and sly literary references to Tolkien, Rowling and others.

And it turns out that neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night – nor indeed fire and malice – can stop letters and words getting through in Discworld, thanks to the Unfranked Man.

Read for Kristen of WeBeReading,com’s #MarchMagics and as March’s title for Adam of RoofBeamReader’s #TBRyear10 Challenge

9 thoughts on “The Unfranked Man

  1. Sir TP was/is a National Treasure. Alas, our South African Post Office has died an ignominious death …. doesn’t really work any more. No street deliveries, and Post Offices closing left, right & centre. Infuriating for many, especially me, a long-time member of the international Postcard exchange, Postcrossing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s such a shame, Alison, and so disheartening. Emails, social media comments and e-postcards aren’t in any way the same, are they?

      Though Going Postal was written nearly twenty years ago, when the internet was significantly less ubiquitous than it is now, Pterry’s dystopian vision of the voracious ‘clacks’ company hastening the demise of the post was sadly prophetic of our own world.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. He’s great, isn’t he? – humour with bite, ridicule tempered by sympathy given to those who deserve it. I’ve been reading Discworld novels, if not quite randomly, at least not entirely chronologically, jumping from Tiffany Aching stories to Witches, from DEATH to Hogwatch, and now the first of the Lipwig novels. I’m happy to dip in wherever and whenever, and don’t seem to have lost out as a result!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I saw Going Postal as a play performed by an amateur theatre company. I’m afraid it seemed interminable ( went from 8 pm until midnight) with many changes of scenery and far too many characters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Complexity in plots and castlists may work in novels which you can consume in bite-size chunks, or in streamed episodes which can be paused for comfort breaks or even binge-watched; but it seldom suits live performances where a captive audience may get restless or simply go to sleep. I fear you may have been bludgeoned by artistic misjudgment, Gert.

      Liked by 2 people

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