November 7, 2008

The Stuff Nations Are Made Of

I just finished reading PTerry‘s Nation last night and it was quite the experience. Shakespeare, in As You Like It if I’m not mistaken, says that there are seven ages to man. There seems to have been, at least so far, three stages to PTerry’s writing 🙂

First there was the the spoofing PTerry, the one who made fun of fantasy clichés and parodied pop culture. Then there was the PTerry from around Small Gods who (or was it later, when Vimes began transmogrifying from a regular character into something different?) wrote much more thoughtful novels; in fact, he might just have moved from spoof to satire around this point. Of course, this is just my opinion, others might think differently 🙂

But with Nation, you have a new PTerry, or the third age of PTerry, where the tone is more serious. The usual PTerry humour is there but the tone of the novel is not of parody or satire, it’s about telling a story and it’s a story of ideas. Little ideas which can set big ideas rolling and big ideas which can move entire worlds. In fact, the whole novel is chockablock with ideas packed tight like sardines in a can 🙂

But the thread underlying it all is simple. It’s about the concept of a nation. When you are one person all alone in the world, there’s just you. But when you have two people facing all that may come there way, you have a nation. When a small child creates an imaginary friend, he’s creating his own nation that will let him be all that he wants to be. When an adult creates an alter ego that does heroic things when he can’t, he’s creating a nation that lets him cope with the world. We all rely on nations, whether consciously or subconsciously. But Nation takes the concept and shows us all that goes with being part of a nation.

There’s more to the story than that of course. But why should I spoil the joy of discovering these things for anybody? There’s a lot going on and given that I read the novel rather quickly, it seemed to all happen so fast. But it works and it works well.

About the only thing that didn’t work for me was the ending. And that has nothing to do with PTerry’s writing. There are two children at the end of the novel who ask somebody who’s telling them the story that was the story of Nation, why it couldn’t have ended differently. They don’t want a happy ending for nations, they are not interested in the bigger picture. They wanted a happy ending for individuals. I am like those children.

I can understand that reality is different, that you don’t always get the happy ending you wanted. I can also understand that when you look at how things turn out overall, that it was a happy ending for all of humanity perhaps. But still, I yearn for the happy ending that I wanted. Perhaps it’s because I’m like those children, I still haven’t grown up. But then again, I don’t want to grow up if it means that I have to give up my hopes for happy endings :p

On the other hand, I have enjoyed every bit of PTerry’s writing that I’ve come across over the years. While I found some of them were profound, they were still like a good dinner that you enjoyed a lot but forgot about after a few days – you take the idea with you but the details get lost as time passes. But Nation is like that one enjoyable dinner where you swallowed a fish bone by mistake and even after the dinner is forgotten, you remember the fish bone. Perhaps that’s why this particular ending is there – you remember it when all else is forgotten.

Overall, I think this is the best PTerry novel so far and while I probably would prefer that he goes back to the good dinners of the Discworld, I wouldn’t mind a fishbone-included-dinner like Nation every once in a while 🙂