Friday, March 25, 2011

The End is Near...and Hilarious: A Review of Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

From the back cover:

The world will end on Saturday. Next Saturday. Just before dinner, according to The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, the world's only completely accurate book of prophecies written in 1655. The armies of good and evil are amassing and everything appears to be going according to Divine Plan. Except that a somewhat fussy angel and a fast-living demon are not actually looking forward to the coming rapture. And someone sees to have misplaced the Antichrist.

My Review:

Aziraphale and Crowley are two immortals with a big problem: the looming Apocalypse. It's not that they're against the idea, per se. As an angel and a demon, respectively, they are expected to support their side in the final battle between good and evil. It's just that, after being on Earth since the beginning...well, they've started to kind of like it. Now, it's up to them to try and stop it.

Good Omens was co-written by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. They are, arguably, two of the funniest writers on the market today. Pratchett's satirical Discworld books never fail to make me laugh and Gaiman's dark humor gives even more depth to his already well-written novels. In this satire of the Apocalypse, both of their senses of humor compliment each other. While they never really talk about who wrote what, people who are well-read in both authors can catch glimpses here and there of material that is easily recognizable as belonging to one or the other.

This is at least the fourth (if not the fifth) time that I've read this book. In fact, when I first read it all those summers ago, I immediately reread it--something I'd never done before or since. It wasn't just the humor (which is superb) or the plot (which is well-crafted) or the characters (which are extremely likable). It was all of these elements put together, plus the way in which the authors used the subject of the end of the world as a way to explore human nature. For those of you who haven't read the book before and who see it as a fluffy, insubstantial novel, this might seem to be a bit of a stretch. But that is, after all, one of the things that a good satire does. It's something at which Pratchett, especially, excels.

Crowley, the demon, thinks that he's figured out the true nature of homo sapiens. He realizes that no matter how much demons and other minions of Hell wheedle away at a soul and make people do horrible things, humans will always one up them:
...he did his best to make their short lives miserable...but nothing he could think up was half as bad as the stuff they thought up themselves. They seemed to have a talent for it. It was built into the design, somehow. They were born into a world that was against them in a thousand little ways, and then devoted most of their energies to making it worse (p. 33).
Humans are also portrayed as being somewhat blind. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are in their midst and they pretty much ignore them:
Perhaps they saw nothing at all. Perhaps they saw what their minds were instructed to see, because the human brain is not equipped to see War, Famine, Pollution*, and Death when they don't want to be seen, and has got so good at not seeing that it often manages not to see them even when they abound on every side (p. 313).
But Aziraphale, the angel, knows that humans can just as often be good. In fact, it is precisely because they have such a capacity for evil that they also have such a capacity for real good, and vice versa. I think one of my favorite quotes in the entire book pretty much sums it all up: "It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people (p. 26)."

The book is, however, at its heart, a really funny story about the Apocalypse. This is one of those novels that's just as funny the first time as it is the fifth time. In fact, I'd argue that it gets funnier over time, mostly because in the time since I first read it I've learned some things that have helped me understand a joke better--like why November 5th is so important or who the hell Dick Turpin is. Much of the humor comes from exchanges between characters that are far too long to post here and that are much better in context, such as the great discussion that Aziraphale and Crowley have early on in the book about gorillas or the conversation between Newt and the cop-like aliens from space.

That having been said, there are a lot of great one liners and small moments as well, e.g.:

  • pg. 151: "Many people, meeting Aziraphale for the first time, formed three impressions: that he was English, that he was intelligent, and that he was gayer than a tree full of monkeys on nitrous oxide."
  • pg. 188: "You do know that you could find yourself charged with being a dominant species while under the influence of impulse-driven consumerism, don't you?"

Readers who are fans of Pratchett's Discworld, will be happy to know that Death plays a role in this book as well. He's not the same exact Death that's portrayed in those novels, but he does have the same dry humor. He even speaks in his typical all-caps manner.

For example, the Four Horsemen actually ride motorcycles and they meet up for the first time at a diner in the middle of nowhere. The only other people inside are four other bikers, only one of which has actually read a Bible (and that only because he had to hole up in a hotel for three months while on the run from the law and it was the only book available). So when these guys see that the Horsemen are wearing Hell's Angels jackets, they get sort of suspicious; these guys don't look like Hell's Angels. One of the bikers asks them which chapter they're from and Death replies: REVELATIONS. CHAPTER SIX. It's probably my favorite moment in the entire book.

I could probably go on for the next millennium about how much I love this book. I could talk about how the plot is engrossing, the action well-paced, the characters realistic and yet fantastic all at the same time. I could mention that the ending is satisfactory and that the rest of the book builds up to it nicely. I could even dare you NOT to absolutely adore Crowley and Aziraphale (I personally don't think it can be done). But I won't.

Instead, I will simply implore you to read this book. It's one of the only novels in the world that I have been able to reread so many times and I know that I'm not alone in that. Good Omens is one of those rare gems. It's not necessarily a literary classic (at least, it's not in the same realm as Dickens or Austen), but it is, I think, a timeless book...even if some of the things it talks about are a little outdated (Sony Walkmans, car phones, etc.). Underneath all the humor and the peril is a real story about what makes us human--the good, the bad, and everything in between.

*Pestilence decided to throw in the towel after the invention of penicillin and was replaced.


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