Going postal with Going Postal

So I’m reading the new(-est) Pratchett, Going Postal, and it’s shaping up nicely as a tale of the value of the public sector in a free-market world — with jokes. Last night, though, I hit a sequence that actually made me grouchy. Pratchett introduces a very minor character who has a fundamental problem with apostrophes, and is, of course, a greengrocer. His speech comes out something like this:

“Be with you in jus’t one moment, s’ir, I’m ju’st-” the man began.

It’s not a bad gag — though not a great one — but it introduces a couple of related problems. The first — the one that made me grouchy — arises from the fact that I’m reading the book aloud to A. at bedtime. So I’m faced with trying to convey the gag as I read aloud, and I haven’t a clue how to do it. The underlying problem is that this is a visual gag, conveyed as reported speech. Such things are a bit of a favourite of Pratchett’s, the most famous being the way Death speaks in HOLLOW CAPITALS, so that his entrance into a scene can be wonderfully dry and economical. We literally see him coming. There’s a crucial difference, though. Death’s HOLLOW CAPITALS might be visual, but they have an aural analogue. A dramatised version of the story might use some distinctive echo effect, or I might just put on a funny deep voice when I’m reading Death. And the reader is quite capable of imagining for himself what the HOLLOW CAPITALS sound like, because they presumably do have a sound. That’s the point.

A litter of misplaced apostrophes, on the other hand, has no sound. Perhaps in Klingon, or some other fictive language, but not in English. Their work is accomplished by morphology, not phonology. That’s actually — and this is important — exactly why people fuck them up so much. Their language skills have been acquired by hearing, and not by reading, so apostrophes are a silent arcane mystery to them. This leads to a nagging inconsistency in Pratchett’s gag: the greengrocer finds apostrophes unfathomable precisely because they’re silent, but the expression of his finding them unfathomable requires that they make some sort of sound. It’s not enough simply to propose that it’s merely a visual gag, because the visual in this case is still the representation of the greengrocer’s speech, which, in the world of the story, has sound. What would it sound like, were we to hear it? It makes no sense to render the apostrophes with sound — that’s not how they work in English (and no jokes at the back about this being Ankh-Morporkian, not English, please). Yet the joke vanishes into thin air unless they are rendered somehow. Hence my reader’s annoyance with Pratchett in this case. The joke is simply impossible to tell.

Unless, perhaps, we infer something even more complicated, but still problematical, which is that the greengrocer’s apostrophes shouldn’t in fact be rendered aurally — because were we to hear the greengrocer we’d not be aware of their existence — and that they exist as a special bonus joke only for readers of the printed page. It’s not such a bad idea, but it implies something else that also requires explanation: how do we know that the apostrophes are there in the greengrocer’s speech, if they make no sound? Not: how does someone listening to the story read aloud know that the apostrophes are there — they don’t know that they’re there — but: who has decided that they’re there? The greengrocer? How would we know that he’s decided they should be there? Pratchett, as the author? How would he know that the greengrocer has decided that they should be there?

I can bore on an international level about how important point of view is in fiction, how getting it right is the main difference between a good story and a great one. The question to ask is: who is telling the story? The telling of the story must belong to someone, and if the author doesn’t figure out who that person is, and configure the narrative accordingly, something vitally important will be lost. It’s perfectly okay for the author to be telling the story, natch, and that’s typically the case with Discworld books: Pratchett’s voice is layered over the top of everything like frosting on a cake, and he doesn’t ever pretend that it’s otherwise. But even the omniscience that placing himself in the position of ownership of the story gives him doesn’t resolve the point of view conundrum he creates with the greengrocer. If the story was told from the point of view of the greengrocer himself, whether as first person or a limited third-person, then the apostrophe gag might have been supported. We’d then probably imagine the greengrocer speaking the words as he knew he would write them. In Pratchett’s voice, however, the gag falls foul of the most basic heuristic of story-telling: he must resort to telling us about the apostrophe gag, rather than being able to show it to us.

I know. I know. It’s just a throwaway joke. Sheesh. And, no, I probably wouldn’t care half as much about this if I knew how to read the damn gag out loud.


  • If the story is the greengrocer’s story, and he is telling it and apostrophes are unfathomable to him, wouldn’t he then incorrectly apply apostrophes to other people’s speech? Or never use them?

    (Commas are occasionally unfathomable to me – I’ve never understood the rules for them because they’re also so misused in writing. See my own run-on sentence above for an example 🙂

    Why is it that *only* the greengrocer’s apostrophes are misused?


  • sparkle:

    If the story is the greengrocer’s story, and he is telling it and apostrophes are unfathomable to him, wouldn’t he then incorrectly apply apostrophes to other people’s speech? Or never use them?

    I’d say so, yes. Although it’d more obviously be the thing to do when the story POV was first-person – because then everything would be overtly filtered through the greengrocer’s linguistic idiom – I reckon it’d also be somewhat required if it was limited third-person.

    It’s a general question: should the implied author of a story have the same linguistic competence as the narrator? Personally I reckon they should, and that a gap between the competence – or style – of the implied author and the narrator of a story is one of the biggest clues that the writer hasn’t figured out POV properly:

    “By ‘eck, lass,” he said, and her soft eyelashes fluttered as if blown by the dying breath of an angel. “I’m
    right chuffed, like.”

    Pratchett typically avoids the problem entirely by having such a strong and amiable authorial voice that we don’t really mind the huge differences in the lingustic skill of his characters, and between the characters and his own voice. It’s his story, not theirs. Sometimes when he does limited third – as in the recent Wee Free Men books – he tones his own voice down quite a bit and makes the implied author roughly equivalent to the main character. I reckon in those cases the POV is much more satisfying, because the spell isn’t broken quite so wilfully.

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