‘Table for One’ (Liz Phair) Sunday, Jan 13 2008 

Robert Christgau has been getting a lot of flak on the Rolling Stone website for his reviews of (what he deems) ho-hum or poor albums. Most readers’ criticisms centre on the dense, (in Singlish) ‘cheem’ nature of his writing, essentially a complaint that the review is difficult to understand. Well, that brings to mind a Terry Pratchett quote on the problems he has had with American publishers, captured for posterity in The Annotated Pratchett Files:

That seems to point up a significant difference between Europeans and Americans.

A European says: ‘I can’t understand this, what’s wrong with me?’ An American says: ‘I can’t understand this, what’s wrong with him?’

I make no suggestion that one side or other is right, but observation over many years leads me to believe it is true.

More difficult to dismiss is the criticism that Christgau’s negative reviews are just, well, off-the-mark – that he has somehow missed the genius at work, mistaken brilliant music for terrible music, &c. For whatever reason, however, I find almost all of his reviews spot on. A sample of negative reviews of artists I like reveal quite clearly that careful listening has gone into that particular album review. The great thing is that he will (for ‘Honorable Mention’ and ‘Choice Cut’ reviews) identify the one or two excellent songs on an otherwise dull record.

Liz Phair’s 2005 album Somebody’s Miracle received one such (B-plus, which is actually not too bad) review.

In pop, when the production’s solid and the voice a little less so, the songs had better be on the money (“Got My Own Thing,” “Table for One”)

And this is precisely the case. Somebody’s Miracle is not very remarkable save ‘Got My Own Thing’ and ‘Table for One’ – the two songs I find myself returning to, especially the latter. A simple but lovely melody, gorgeous classical Spanish-style picked acoustic lines, and a vivid, sweetly-sung account of alcoholism:

It’s morning and I pour myself coffee

I drink it till the kitchen stops shaking

I’m backing out of the driveway and into creation

And the loving spirit that follows me

Watching helplessly, will always forgive me

Oh, I want to die alone

With my sympathy beside me

I want to bring down all those demons who drank with me

Feasting gleefully

On my desperation

I delight in Ms Phair’s lyrical tricks, and many they are, too, like this mid-sentence switch of (grammatical) subject:

I hide all the bottles in places / they find

And confront me with pain in their eyes

And I promise that I’ll make some changes

I never believed in Father Christmas, but… Saturday, Jan 6 2007 

What would have been a festive season-appropriate entry, if not for the earthquake that disrupted internet traffic throughout the Asia-Pacific around Dec 25, and the pick-up in workload that follows an extended hiatus:

It’s good to believe in Father Christmas for a while. It trains our imagination on the little lies, so that we can believe the big lies like justice, truth. – Terry Pratchett

(I may be paraphrasing what I read in our local paper. I don’t have an elephantine memory.)

MUM: ‘How cynical.’

ME (yes, that’s ungrammatical, but what the hey): ‘Really? I thought it was precisely the opposite of cynical.’

And that is one of the things that I like so much about Terry Pratchett.

Terry Pratchett – The Fifth Elephant Saturday, Nov 18 2006 

If there is one gripe I could make about Terry Pratchett, it is that his plots and/or narratives are occasionally a little too complicated: you spend too much effort getting your head around them, at the expense of the really important stuff like character and meaning. I’ve never been one who lives for plot (whether in books or films); you can produce great stuff with character, meaning and minimal plot, but plot with nothing else is a little bit pointless. You can’t learn (or grow) from the latter.

Anyhow, The Fifth Elephant was one of those where, for the first few readings, trying to keep track of the story somewhat obscured the joys of everything else. It was after all about politics, which are complex enough when they involve only men, but which in this case also involve dwarfs, werewolves, vampires. And two countries (Ankh-Morpork and Uberwald), which means international politics. And a protagonist who thinks primarily like a copper, and now has to learn very quickly to act like a diplomat: the reluctant aristocrat, His Grace His Excellency the Duke of Ankh, Commander Sir Samuel Vimes, to use all his titles. (Although His Grace supposedly cancels out Sir.)

This time, however, I think I got enough of a handle on the story that the other things stood out more. Fantasy with characters, humour and a lot of heart, that’s Terry Pratchett. I have never read him because of the fantasy, though I appreciate that a world with multiple sentient species (including what we in this world would consider the supernatural), and magic, &c, just offers so many more creative possibilities to a writer. Pratchett stretches credulity enough, anyhow, with the absolutely wonderful creation that is Samuel Vimes.

The Fifth Elephant isn’t the novel that showcases most strongly this impossibly deep and rounded character – I think Night Watch would be a strong contender for that – but it does boast this gem of a description of Vimes, from the point of view of his wife Lady Sybil Ramkin, who is incidentally the richest woman in Ankh-Morpork.

In many ways, she told herself, she was very lucky. She was proud of Sam. He worked hard for a lot of people. He cared about people who weren’t important. He always had far more to cope with than was good for him. He was the most civilized man she’d ever met. Not a gentleman, thank goodness, but a gentle man.

Oof. I want a husband like that too. Of course, Sybil sees Vimes in a slightly idealised way, but at the bottom of it all Vimes is a Good Egg. Sybil is no slouch either; these two really deserve each other. Vimes knows this about her:

She got on with people. Practically from the moment she’d been able to talk she’d been taught how to listen. And when Sybil listened to people she made them feel good about themselves. It was probably something to do with being a… a big girl. She tried to make herself seem small, and by default that made those around her feel bigger.

Character aside, there’s some really super humour in The Fifth Elephant. The disadvantage to reading Terry Pratchett on the MRT is that you can’t help the odd grin and outright chuckle and the numerous jokes. Well, there’s nothing wrong with laughing to yourself in public per se, but you don’t generally want to come off as a lunatic. Terry Pratchett’s humour is extremely… varied. He does puns and wit and irony, and bizarre situational humour, and character-driven humour; he isn’t above slapstick, either. And there are the really true observations cut with humour:

It is in the nature of the universe that the person who always keeps you waiting ten minutes will, on the day you are ten minutes tardy, have been ready ten minutes early and will make a point of not mentioning this.

When people “We must move with the times,” they really mean “You must do it my way.”

Okay, so Terry Pratchett can tell it as he sees it, i.e. that the world is strange and wonderful. He doesn’t shy away from the dark aspects of it, either. The Fifth Elephant has werewolves and wolves and dwarves and men all doing terrible things to one another, cross-species and within their species, too. It makes you feel better to remember that werewolves and dwarves don’t exist (I don’t think they do, anyway), but only a little. But I wouldn’t much like a writer who is blind to the great stuff. For there is great stuff, too, alongside the horrible stuff. It might be silly to characterise Pratchett as having ‘heart’ just because he isn’t a complete cynic, but it’s not fair to suggest that he’s an idealist, either, since ‘idealist’ is something of pejorative term nowadays. And Pratchett is well aware that the great stuff in this world seldom consists in the so-called ‘big stuff’. Observes Vimes:

… the world wasn’t moved by heroes or villains or even by policemen. […] All he knew was that you couldn’t hope to try for the big stuff, like world peace and happiness, but you might just about be able to achieve some tiny deed that’d make the world, in a small way, a better place.

I think we can take this to be fair representation of Pratchett’s own views on the matter. It certainly is a fair representation of mine.

So, really, complicated as the story of The Fifth Elephant is, the story isn’t the point. It never really is, with Terry Pratchett. And to me that is a very big plus point indeed. Makes for good re-reading.