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18 September 2011

Book Flashback: Good Omens

By // Books

This feature sees your intrepid author venturing back into the books that delighted her in the past to see if they still stand up.

If you’re a fantasy reader, chances are good that you’ve heard of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. In fact, I think I’d be willing to say chances are about 100% that you’ve heard of at least one of them. Otherwise, you’ve probably never read a fantasy book outside of Harry Potter or Twilight, and regardless of either book’s relative merits*, you’re not a real reader of fantasy so much as a reader of immensly popular book series.

Anyway, Neil Gaiman has made a living being the unfathomably cool poster boy for the legitimacy of fantasy and comics being “art.” From his 1980s/early 90s graphic novel revolution in the form of The Sandman, to his 2002 opus/deconstructing of the modern religious psyche American Gods, Gaiman continually manages to maintain the literature part of fantasy literature, and, despite his massive success, still seem like a James Dean-type British outsider creating his hip art inside a dangerous and insightful medium (PLUS, he wrote an episode of Doctor Who!).

Terry Pratchett is slightly more niche, but to fans of fantasy (and specifically, to fans of satirical fantasy the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Douglas Adams) he is a irreplaceable part of the landscape. His DiscWorld novels span topics from sexism to racism to nationalism to Trolls, and contain over 39 books. If Gaiman is the leather jacket wearing cover boy of modern fantasy, Pratchett is the hilarious and cutting stand up comedian who warms up the crowd for him.

But back in the mid 1980s when they started working on their collaboration (as Gaiman puts it in his foreword, before there even was a “Neil Gaiman” and a “Terry Pratchett” for them to be), they were just two struggling writers who happened to get along pretty well. And so they wrote a book together about the end of the world, because if you were Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, what would you do with your spare time?

I first picked up Good Omens my freshman year of high school. A much-smarter-than-me friend had been trying to convince me to read Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett for the better part of the year, and I, being the open-minded adventurer I was back in high school, was pretty resolute about saying no. But I’ve always been drawn to fantastical tales of good and evil, so when she put a copy of Good Omens in my hands I had to crack it. The cover itself was just so inviting.

In high school this set off a flurry of very expensive purchasing. I simply had to have every installment of the Sandman franchise (despite their $20-a-pop price, and the fact that I read them in about an hour, I refused to rent them from the library). My whole family began devouring Discworld (which, at about $8-a-pop, might seem a bargain, until you multiply that times THIRTY NINE). Every Neil Gaiman book was greeted with a mixture of trepidation and financial ruin.

So was this book actually as good as its effect on me in high school would imply? When I rescued my old, signed (BY BOTH AUTHORS, hachacha!) copy from a box of books my parents were trying to donate, I decided to investigate.

Short answer: yes. There’s a reason the book has maintained its classic status. It took the best elements of Pratchett (his witty irreverence and ability to comment masterfully on our modern state of being) with the best of Gaiman (his dark humor, the way all his stories seem at once grandiose and down to earth). And it told a damn good story.

The book focuses on Crowley and Azariphale (a demon and an angel, respectively) who, when confronted with the prophesized end times, realize that they quite like this land of hamburgers and Queen tapes. After Crowley botches the attempt to transfer the antichrist to an American attache (not sure what this is), and instead allows the Lord of All Darkness to grow up unmolested in a suburb, the nicely named Adam Young manages to turn from the bringer of all evil and destruction into a nice, if somewhat overly charismatic, young man. Think Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can as a man who realizes he can get whatever he wants just by asking for it, but who doesn’t really mean any harm.

Crowley and Azariphale attempt to undo the oncoming apocalypse while Adam attempts to understand why suddenly he has a pet dog named Dog who won’t go away and the whole universe has started to conform to his whims. Add in dashes of witchcraft, insanity, and a cool car constantly playing classic rock and you’ve got… an episode of the CW show Supernatural, except for with less hot chicks turning into demons.

In fact, a lot of pop culture from the past twenty years probably owes a debt to the particular way that Gaiman and Pratchett mix morality with religion. By refusing to play sides (evil or good are not exactly synonymous with hell and heaven in this universe), they’re able to play around with Christian mythology in a way that seems respectful of belief without being prescriptive of belief. Think the way that Buffy fought the forces of darkness, but slowly realized that the institutions designed to fight them back (The Watchers Council, etc.) were just as corrupt.

In all, Good Omens is probably better now than it was in high school, and still the perfect intro course to the awesome bibliographies of Gaiman and Pratchett.

*Harry Potter rules.

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