Going Postal by Terry Pratchett
When searching for a strong conflict to anchor a story, most fantasy authors rely on dragons, invading hordes of orcs, and universe-ending supernatural beings and phenomena. In Going Postal, Terry Pratchett tries to save Ankh-Morpork’s post office.
Oddly, by aiming lower – just saving the post office? – I felt that Pratchett had taken more of a gamble than his more bombastic peers. Then again, Going Postal is the thirty-third novel in Pratchett’s spectacularly successful DISCWORLD series, so he has little to lose. Why not write a novel about what must be the most mundane premise fantasy has ever seen?
Moist von Lipwig, our hero, is a conman and a swindler who has the good fortune of also having an utterly forgettable face. However, when we meet him, his crimes have finally caught up with him. He barely has time to choose his last words before he is hanged to within an inch of his life. Fortunately for Moist, the execution is just for show, and Moist is taken away to meet Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork. Vetinari offers Moist the choice: run the post office or die.
Moist chooses life.
The post office is in trouble for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the new “clacks” system, which transmits data faster than the post. However, as the clacks system has become more popular, its owners have become less inclined to maintain its towers. Repairs, delays, and poor service have become the norm, though the clacks’ shareholders, led by Reacher Gilt, continue to make an enormous amount of money.
Going Postal is a fantasy, and so golems, banshees, and wizards are all given a chapter or two of attention. More impressively, Pratchett tosses off a magic system around letter writing, once again proving – if proof were still necessary – that he is a uniquely inventive writer of fantasy.
However, for most readers, the best part of Going Postal will be Pratchett’s trademark humor. Most of the humor derives from wordplay – starting with the title. My favorite might have been centered around one of the post office’s employees, Stanley Howler. Stanley is obsessive, particularly about pins. Pin enthusiasts are, of course, known as “pinheads.” The number of plays on pin that Pratchett works into Going Postal is surprising, but what surprised me more was that I never tired of reading them.
Going Postal is the first DISCWORLD novel to feature Moist von Lipwig as a protagonist. If Sam Vimes is associated with police procedurals, it looks like Moist will feature in novels about public institutions. Odd as it may sound, I am looking forward to reading Moist von Lipwig’s next novel, Making Money. Going Postal is not only a diverting and amusing read, it is a remarkably smooth and professional entry in the DISCWORLD series.
I listened to Harper Audio’s production of Going Postal, which was read by Stephen Briggs. It would be difficult to imagine a more perfect performer for this novel. Briggs is clearly operating on the same frequency as Pratchett, so the humor always felt natural. Briggs has invested each character with a unique voice, and I found myself thinking that this might be one of the few instances in which listening to a novel trumps reading it.
“This was a great place, once. Once, we were postmen.”
“… The Post Office? When we all know that it was a great, lumbering, smug, overstaffed, overweight monster of a place? It barely earned its keep!”
Certain books come into your life at crucial times, and they change your outlook. They may even, in a manner of speaking, save your life. Going Postal probably did not save my life, but it saved my sanity, and it definitely helped my career.
Going Postal is set in Ankh-Morpork, the bustling city that looks like a London/New York City hybrid on steroids. Unlike most of the urban DISCWORLD books, it does not feature the Night Watch, but introduces a new series character, Moist von Lipwig. Moist was a small-time swindler, a confidence man who got caught. He is sentenced to death, but the Patrician of the city, Lord Vetinari, gives him a life-or-death choice. The not-death choice is to become the postmaster of the city’s long-defunct post office, and get it functioning. Moist is reluctant, but ends up committing to this task. He is “helped” in this decision by his golem assistant/parole officer, Mr. Pump, who carries Moist back to the city, upside down, when he tries to make a run for it.
Moist soon discovers that the obstacles to reviving the post office are nearly insurmountable. Quite apart from the complete lack of resources, active attacks by enemies (the board members of the local telegraph monopoly really don’t want competition) and inadequate staffing, Moist is faced with a small mountain-range of undelivered mail, a decades-old backlog.
I read this book in 2005. I had recently been promoted. The promotion had been a shock. I had applied for the job just to keep my interview skills sharp. I knew where the position was, and I knew the division director who was interviewing. There wasn’t a chance in the world that she — let’s call her R. — would hire me. She was well-known for hiring from within, from a circle of staff who had worked closely with her over the years. They went on family vacations together. She did not bring in outsiders.
I also wasn’t sure I would want the job, because I knew what was going on in that section of the department. The office was a disaster. I worked for county government; budget cuts at the state and county levels had resulted in large layoffs in that office. There were well-known morale problems and a high distrust of management. There was too much work for the existing staff to do, and increasing urgency on the part of management to get it done. The management team was very vocal about demanding that staff get the work current, but they used the staff as a feeder team for the Intake office which, located in the county administrative center, was highly visible. Case managers had clearly gotten the message that they were second-best, they didn’t matter, and that management thought they were lazy. Out of an on-paper staff of forty-seven, which included receptionists, phone operators and clerical help, eleven were out on various kinds of long-term medical leaves.
Unfortunately, I got the job. R wanted a person who was seen as an outsider, not part of her old circle, someone who would have a clean slate with staff. That made it difficult for me to say “No.” Not as difficult as it would have been for Moist von Lipwig, but… difficult.
I took the job in late fall. I had one year to dig us out of a three-year backlog while keeping the incoming work current, and get the office ready for a new automation system. In government, this means participation in endless committees and workgroups. I was expected to address numerous performance problems (several employees who could not meet standard expectations) and the absenteeism problems. R had hired me as a strategic choice, but she didn’t trust me, because I was not one of her inner circle. I had none of that personal history. That was good, but made things awkward, especially at managers’ meetings, where they would be reviewing their weekend day-trip to Sacramento Old Town while I sat jiggling my pen. At least one manager assigned to my team was worried that if I were successful, it would cast doubt on her own management abilities, and R’s. She didn’t ever actively sabotage me, but she came close more than once.
Fall slid towards winter. I went to work in the dark and came home in the dark. My husband was working out of town then. I would come home after a bruising day of failure to a dark, cold house. Some days I would walk directly into the bedroom, fall on the bed, pull the quilt over my head, and cry for ten minutes before I did anything else.
Then Going Postal showed up on the New Arrivals shelf. I thought I would enjoy it. Then I got to the passage where Moist realizes that what he thought were ceiling-high mounds of pigeon guano in the post office were actually piles of undelivered letters.
… there was no end to them. They filled every room of the building and spilled out into the corridors. It was technically true that the postmaster’s office was unusable because of the floor; it was twelve feet deep in letters. Whole corridors were blocked with them. Cupboards were stuffed full of them; to open a door incautiously was to be buried in an avalanche of yellowing envelopes. Floorboards budged suspiciously upwards. Through cracks in sagging ceiling plaster, paper protruded.
That description and others in the book, except for the guano, accurately described the office I inherited. In one large room where all the file folders were banked there were eight six-drawer file cabinets, all stuffed with unprocessed forms. Underneath the work tables in every part of the office sat fifteen or twenty bins full of paper. Every worker’s cubicle had a bin full of paper as well as wall-high stacks of file folders. Whenever I would try to get an idea of volume, of numbers, I’d find another cache of old paper. At one supervisors meeting, I finally snapped. “Are there bins in the restrooms you want to tell me about?” I said. They all exchanged glances, and one brave soul (they were all women) said, “Well, there aren’t any in the women’s restroom, but we can’t be sure about the men’s.”
(When Moist asks why they don’t just burn the old letters, Mr. Groat, one of his two employees, reacts with shock. That would be tampering with the mail. Well, Moist says, isn’t letting it sit tampering? Groat is very clear; no, it isn’t tampering. It’s just delaying. I had said to my staff, “Can’t we just mark the three-year-old stuff ‘Not Processed,’ image it, and move on to the more current forms?” No, they said. We can’t do that. It would look bad. This way, we might get to it someday.)
Our backlog didn’t whisper the way the letters did to Moist. It just grew, weighing people down psychically and physically (my section led the league in repetitive-stress injuries); it just grew like a colony of poisonous barnacles, convincing people that no matter how hard or how long they worked, they would never be good enough to get current.
When I read the passage about the letters in the book, I felt like I had a lifeline. Moist had bigger problems than I did, and he didn’t give up. He felt like running, more than once, but he hung in there. Well, he did have that golem who would follow him for eternity and bring him back if he ran, but still. Now I would go home to a dark house, turn on the lights, put on the kettle for tea and settle back to read a few pages from my fantasy mentor, who was facing a problem worse than mine, and was making headway.
I did not have to ride a homicidal horse who wanted to “bite the horizon”; I did not challenge the telegraph to a race; I did not have an employee attacked by a banshee. I did manage to terminate employment for three employees who had performance problems. I did persuade R that since we were saving salary costs on eleven people who were on long-term unpaid leaves I should have some funding for overtime. I didn’t wear a gold suit or a hat with wings, but I found ways to measure the progress we were making and display it, so everyone could see that we were digging ourselves out. I didn’t buy a rare collectable pin for a staffer, but I did provide coffee cards to high achievers. I never had Moist’s gift of speeches and the “big show,” but I did buy lunch on overtime Saturdays. I kept pointing out how well people were doing, and finally, they started believing me. Like Moist, I listened to my Mr. Groat and my Stanley, to get staff’s opinion on what was going on, and what would work. Not surprisingly, most of the time they had the best suggestions.
By the time the new system rolled around, we had processed eighty percent of the backlog. Within four months of coming up on the new system, even with the learning curve and the technical difficulties with that system, we were current. I was considered successful by the department’s executive team. R even talked about what a good hiring choice she had made. That was the ultimate proof that I hadn’t failed.
Going Postal is a book about hope. Throughout the book, hope is discussed as something that can be manipulated, tainted, but is also a driver, an inspiration. Moist never stopped hoping, and he stayed inventive. I followed his lead, and it worked. It wasn’t easy. There were still plenty of nights where I came home crying. There were also plenty of celebrations as we acknowledged successes.
When we talk about books that change our lives, I think we expect them to be Big and Important; philosophical tomes, scientific breakthroughs, memoirs of survivors. For me, a small-time con man in a city on a flat world, held up by four elephants on the back of a space-swimming turtle, taught me how to handle an office catastrophe. He taught me how to hold onto hope, and more importantly, how to help people who had lost their hope find it again. I will always be grateful to Moist, and to his creator Terry Pratchett, for that lesson.
Discworld — (1983-2015) Discworld is a satirical fantasy world created by Terry Pratchett to poke fun at 1980s fantasy novels. Since then, they’ve evolved so that they now make fun of everything. Mr. Pratchett explains Discworld: “The world rides through space on the back of a turtle. This is one of the great ancient world myths, found wherever men and turtles are gathered together; the four elephants were an indo-European sophistication. The idea has been lying in the lumber room of legend for centuries. All I had to do was grab it and run away before the alarms went off… There are no maps. You can’t map a sense of humor. Anyway, what is a fantasy map but a space beyond which There Be Dragons? On the Discworld we know There Be Dragons Everywhere. They might not all have scales and forked tongues, but they Be Here all right, grinning and jostling and trying to sell you souvenirs.” The Discworld novels are presented here in publication order. To read more about the Discworld “arcs” and reading order, see this Wikipedia article.
Discworld for Kids: