I haven’t finished Terry Pratchett’s newest, yet, so I’m a little cautious of passing judgment so soon, but there are some personal elements to my reaction to the book thus far, and so I feel like this needs to be said.
I’m a huge Pratchett fan. Huge. He combines the outright silliness and biting satire of Douglas Adams with a fantasy background and a keen sense for character and plot development. His “detective” stories, centered around the character Samuel Vimes, are eminently readable and re-readable, even after you know the twists. Much of that is due to his ability to construct a wholly engrossing story while subtly, imperceptibly, throwing in so many references and social criticisms that you can sometimes spend more time reading his books as treatises on the foolishness of modern life and ideology than reading the story. And yet his genius is that the story never fades into the background; it is part and parcel (which would apparently invoke the parol evidence rule… sorry, have that phrase and that doctrine swirling around my head right now) of every incisive observation on human existence. I’ve spent an absurd amount of time reading Pratchett’s novels over the last decade; they are simultaneously comforting and thought-provoking, easy to read and fun to ponder. He is one of few authors whose books I make sure to purchase the day they are released, and I always eagerly anticipate his next novel.
Terry Pratchett has also been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. And sadly, it shows. Snuff just isn’t up to par, at least thus far. It’s heavy-handed, stilted, and all the nuances and intricacies of his characters are now forcibly explicated in long internal monologues and passages of pure exposition. Rather than being interesting and quirky, characters play to their own stereotypes, refined through hundreds of interactions over many, many books. Take, for example, Willikins, the perfectly refined and polite gentleman’s gentleman to Samuel Vimes, who also doubles as one of the most hilariously and starkly ruthless and bloodthirsty characters Pratchett describes. Whereas before Willikins played small roles, almost as scene-dressing, which made his dual nature the more striking and funny, now he goes into long speeches about exactly what he’s going to do to his adversaries, and has simultaneously become the deus ex machina meant to conveniently provide Vimes with all sorts of information about the countryside. It’s sad to see a once funny and fascinating character become a gaudy, over-dressed prop to advance the story.
And all of this makes me reflect. It makes me wonder what Dad went through as his own mental deterioration advanced. It makes me wonder if he raged within his own head at his inability to do things the way he knew they should be done. It makes me worry that perhaps the disease was such that he never knew that he’d become a shell of himself, that he would produce work or ideas that were fractions of what he was once capable, and deem them perfect and finished. That his illness was both cruel and kind, robbing him of the ability to honestly evaluate the things he could no longer do. I wonder if he looked at his kids and wife the way I imagine Pratchett looks at his characters, and saw them not as the complicated, nuanced, interesting people they were, but as existing in totality as their single dominant characteristic. That just as Pratchett sees Willikins as “BLOODTHIRSTY,” Dad saw me as “SON,” and both lost the ability to perceive anything else about their loved ones. Because when I read Snuff, that’s what I see. A malformed, half-finished, grasping attempt at brilliance, betrayed and blocked by the encroachment of illness. And perhaps I’m projecting (I’m obviously projecting). And perhaps Snuff will redeem itself. Perhaps Pratchett knows very well what he is doing. I hope so. It would make my dad’s last moments more bearable.