ENTERTAINMENT
01/06/2019 8:51 AM IST

'Good Omens' Used To Be A Favourite, But Revisiting It Is Complicated

Why didn’t I remember that the humour in Neil Gaiman And Terry Pratchett’s ‘Good Omens’ punched down so often?

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I came to Good Omens by way of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. I was halfway through my undergraduate degree, and Harry Potter was all the fantasy I had read until then. I was an English major and a committed quizzer, and the more I read of Discworld, the more I fell in love with PTerry’s (as fans called him) humour and enjoyed decoding his constant playful references. I was also thrilled to find a clear ethical code that resonated strongly with the conflicting earnestness and cynicism that we thought made us oh-so-worldly at 19. Discworld was great storytelling that also constantly joked about the cliches that we critiqued in the classroom; it was comic fantasy that engaged with real-world issues and felt much more grown-up than Harry Potter.

I discovered Neil Gaiman and his aura of rockstar cool a little later, and while I enjoyed American Gods and some of his short stories, Pratchett’s Discworld was my happy place. I even befriended my favourite person over a squee-filled conversation about it. We both discovered Good Omens while doing our masters degree, and quoting some of the cracking lines at each other helped us survive particularly turgid lectures, especially the ones on Paradise Lost.

Good Omens is a great mix of the two authors’ work, and reading it, you’re hard put to say where Pratchett ends and Gaiman begins on the page. For those of you who haven’t read Good Omens yet, the plot is as complicated as the relationship between the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley, who have been frenemies on Earth since the Fall. Together, they need to stop the Apocalypse, but the problem is that they seem to have misplaced the Antichrist. Brimming with gags on everything from The Omen to corporate team-building exercises to Queen (the band, not Elizabeth) and, of course, organised religion, Good Omens plays to both Pratchett and Gaiman’s strengths and is both farce and horror, homage and parody.

When I went through a particularly bleak personal phase a couple of years later, rereading Discworld obsessively (especially the Witches and Vimes books) helped me feel like I hadn’t entirely lost the parts of myself that made me who I was—my nerdiness, my love for trivia and books, and my propensity for terrible puns and wordplay. Humour was my only coping mechanism through depression, and reading Discworld made me laugh when little else did. There were other funny books, yes, but I already knew and loved Pratchett’s storytelling and the arc of his ethical universe—and that familiar mix of humour and earnestness was especially comforting at a time when my personal sense of right and wrong seemed at odds with the world around me. I didn’t read Good Omens as often, but like any true cult-classic fan, I held on to my much borrowed, much battered copy across two masters degrees, three jobs and three states. But on re-reading the book ahead of the release of the series, I realised that it doesn’t hold up quite as well as I thought.

 As a reader—and a fan—I struggle with the book that I would earlier uncritically recommend. It’s like realising that your favourite cool uncle who introduced you to political theory and still discusses Marx and Spivak also makes sexist jokes and tells you that the bigot next door is actually not too bad. Do we make excuses for uncles who were born in a previous era? Do we still engage with their ideas seriously? And do we assume that our own ideological selves, as they are at present, are infallible and beyond questioning?

As a reader—and a fan—I struggle with the book that I would earlier uncritically recommend. It’s like realising that your favourite cool uncle who introduced you to political theory and still discusses Marx and Spivak also makes sexist jokes

I hadn’t read the book in almost five years, and the experience was as unsettling as reading Little Women as an adult and realising how preachy it was—because I didn’t remember the humour in Good Omens punching down so often.

It is still a very funny book—you only need to read the first page to appreciate that—but I realised this time that many of the jokes are racist, ableist and sexist. For instance, as funny as the sections introducing the four horsemen of the Apocalypse are, I couldn’t help but notice that War’s section involves cliches of “third world” countries as either filled with benign, perpetually smiling noble savages or fragmented with conflict based on barely distinguishable ideologies. The section on Famine, similarly, is an extended riff on nouvelle cuisine and fad diets that involve rich people going deliberately hungry, but the imagery used to land the joke is tone deaf and dismissive of eating disorders. Offensive language litters the book, and there are also multiple jokes on the apparent inability of PoC to speak the Queen’s English. Why didn’t I notice these when I read the book earlier? Was it because these jokes were normalised by delivering them via characters coded as good people?

A big problem with Good Omens is Shadwell, Witchfinder Sergeant and rampant bigot, but his comments are presented almost endearingly, making them seem mostly comical and hence inoffensive to his targets. A constant theme running through Good Omens is that a) Good and Evil are not necessarily angelic or satanic absolutes and neither angels nor demons are completely one or the other, and b) that the human heart is capable of choosing to be both more malignant and more endowed with grace than Hell or Heaven can imagine. A curmudgeonly but loveable bigot in such a book normalises bigotry by playing it for laughs.

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Over the years, Pratchett’s Discworld series had started to expose the limits of his liberalism. Although his books stood up for the ‘little guy’, they were more interested in praising exceptionalism, rather than examining structures of oppression. Similarly, rereading Good Omens gave me pause when I realised it rests the fate of the planet on the essential humanity within a child’s heart (even if that child is Satan’s). It makes individuals, not institutions, responsible for change while also creating false symmetries between those who cause harm and the ones harmed. It tells you that the bigot who spews bile at you is not just benign, but can also be a nice guy with a role to play in averting the Apocalypse.

On Tumblr, Gaiman has acknowledged that some of the egregious racism and homophobia will be edited out of the series, which is set in the present, unlike the book, which was published in 1990 and set in 1984. It feels like both acknowledgment and apologia—as if to say, well, that was then and this is now, and we live in more enlightened times. Shadwell, though, is still a problem. Gaiman says, “Shadwell was still pretty awful in the script, but somehow on the screen Michael McKean manages to imbue him with so much joy in what he does that you cannot help falling just a little bit in love with him.”

The book and the TV series are two different creatures, certainly, but I’m a little bemused that Gaiman’s explanation doesn’t actually address what it means to have a loveable bigot for an important character.

I’m really looking forward to seeing how the series engages with these issues, as much as I am hoping that it can reproduce the joie de vivre of the book. The casting is brilliant, and Gaiman has dropped several exciting hints about the ways in which he has fleshed out the script while staying true to TerryAndNeil’s vision.

While both the Discworld books and Good Omens are comic fantasy, the humour of the books does not undo the fact that they are also engaging with serious issues that are a matter of concern for the author(s). In a 2006 interview, Gaiman and Pratchett say as much when they speak about how the humour is a sweetener for more dark ideas, helping to take the reader much further than they would willingly go otherwise. Later, in a 2014 essay about his old friend who was already slipping away to Alzheimer’s, Gaiman wrote about how people often mistake Sir Terry for a jolly elf and fail to recognise the rage cloaked in his humour.

We come to books not just as they are—we also come to them as we are, and the curious alchemy of reading leaves us a little changed each time.

He says, “(Terry) will rage, as he leaves, against so many things: stupidity, injustice, human foolishness and shortsightedness, not just the dying of the light. And, hand in hand with the anger, like an angel and a demon walking into the sunset, there is love: for human beings, in all our fallibility; for treasured objects; for stories; and ultimately and in all things, love for human dignity.It would, in my opinion, be disrespectful of that very rage if we did not acknowledge the ways in which its chosen method of delivery could also be guilty of some of the very things it raged against.

Perhaps my younger self enjoyed these books far too much to think too critically about their flaws, and perhaps that is partly because it would also make me think about the flaws of my own ethical imagination. We come to books not just as they are—we also come to them as we are, and the curious alchemy of reading leaves us a little changed each time.

Reading Good Omens gave me great joy once upon a time, and while there is still a lot that I enjoy about it, I both grew with and out of this book (and Discworld). It isn’t as simple as a disavowal of my younger, more naive self—to paraphrase Pterry in Night Watch, you had to be the twerp you were in the past to be who you are now. These books might no longer be the Robinson Crusoe to my Gabriel Betteredge, but perhaps the best lesson to learn from a book as blasphemous as Good Omens is that no book, no matter how Nice and Accurate, should ever be treated as beyond questioning.