“Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch,” by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
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Comedy is hard, especially the written variety, and by that measure alone one would be tempted to wonder how “Good Omens” — the 1990 novel of apocalyptic satire that provides much of the source material for the present-day Amazon TV serial — has any right to be so consistently funny, insightful, and even, by the end of it all, surprisingly poignant.
Blame the overbrimming talents that the two authors, Terry Pratchett (who died in 2015) and Neil Gaiman brought to the task. In the introduction to the U.S. 2006 edition of “Good Omens” the pair, both Englishmen, describe themselves at the time of the book’s original publication as “not at all well-known except by the people who knew them.”
Today they’re recognized as leading lights of fantastical literature. Gaiman is celebrated for his canny and deliciously literate mingling of a punk/new wave/goth and altogether postmodern aesthetic with the primordial wonder and terror of myth and fairy-stories. Pratchett was knighted in 2009 “for services to literature,” and is beloved for his use of fantasy as a vehicle not just for imaginative adventure, but also for satirical takedowns of wealth, power and social hypocrisy.
Suffice it to say, it took “Good Omens” exactly three sentences to have me chucking, and four to have me hooked. It is a testament to their accomplishment as writers that the book can do all this in just two paragraphs.
While I’m looking forward to viewing the Amazon serial (which, according to Gaiman, includes material from an unpublished sequel) and in particular have a gleeful sense of anticipation in witnessing the great David Tennant inhabit the role of Crowley, née Crawly, the Biblical Serpent of Eden — by no means should the original book be neglected.
So consider this review an exhortation: If you haven’t yet read “Good Omens,” give it a go before taking on the TV series — not merely to give your mind’s eye a chance to collaborate with the authors, and paint your own pictures of the various scenarios, shenanigans and personages, immortal and otherwise. There is also the pleasure of immersing yourself in the texture, rhythm and counterpoint of Gaiman and Pratchett’s language.
As a work of comedic literature, “Good Omens” is crackling with a sort of deadpan/ironic hilarity that is only sharpened by the juxtaposition of absurdity and cataclysm. It’s a style recognizable to anyone who’s ever read and loved Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” But where Adams ultimately trended to the melancholy, Gaiman and Pratchett take the reader to a more poignant and hopeful place.
The whole book is built around the old switched-baby joke — who misplaced the Antichrist? — which Gaiman and Pratchett skillfully exploit not just as comedy, but also in their speculations about nature versus nurture, and the specifically nostalgic context of English boyhood. (And in this it shares a distinct, if brief, overlap with Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, though that reluctant Destroyer’s boyhood is entirely American.)
As with any good read, many of the pleasures are in the details. There are preposterous names — Anathema Device, Newton Pulsifer, Agnes Nutter — which capably serve the needs of comedy without actually sacrificing plausibility within the narrative. There are the Four Horsemen, who of course ride motorcycles, and who all have pleasingly developed personalities. There is a Hellhound to accompany the Antichrist in the fulfillment of his destiny, the naming of which is another early indication of how things will shake out.
There are laughs, some rather big ones, involving, variously, a nuclear power plant, an answering machine, and the difficulty of navigating the English countryside when one is in a hurry and the world needs ending.
There’s also some compelling philosophical inquiry underpinning the chortles and guffaws. Important question about mercy, about ineffability and the true nature of any Divine Plan, are perhaps best captured in an exchange between the Serpent and the Angel of the East Gate, who confesses to giving away his flaming sword to Adam and Eve upon their expulsion from the Garden:
“Well, I had to,” said the angel, rubbing his hands distractedly. “They looked so cold, poor things, and she’s expecting already, and what with the vicious animals out there and the storm coming up I thought, well, what’s the harm, so I just said, look, if you come back here there’s going to be an almighty row, but you might be needing this sword, so here it is, don’t bother to thank me, just do everyone a big favor and don’t let the sun go down on you here.”
He gave Crawly a worried grin.
“That was the best course, wasn’t it?”
“I’m not sure it’s actually possible for you to do evil,” said Crawly sarcastically. Aziraphale didn’t notice the tone.
“Oh I do hope so,” he said. “I really do hope so. It’s been worrying me all afternoon.”
They watched the rain for a while.
“Funny thing is,” said Crawly, “I keep wondering whether the apple thing wasn’t the right thing to do, as well. A demon can get into real trouble, doing the right thing.” He nudged the angel. “Funny if we both got it wrong, eh? Funny if I did the good thing and you did the bad one, eh?”
“Not really,” said Aziraphale.
It should be said, then, of the book’s conclusion, that its compelling poignance, and its vision of a post-apocalyptic idyll — which, no spoilers, is set up well before the book hits the halfway mark — is the apotheosis of faith, and a potent argument in favor of human goodness (or at least the promise of it).
It is also a great example of the power of the literature of the fantastic to show us just how beautiful a world we really do live in — and that maybe, at a time of dystopic obsessions in our media and politics, we can (and must) believe in, and even fight for, something else; some other, more beautiful and hopeful outcome for these presumed End Times.
The omens are, after all, good ones.
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Amazon users can get “Good Omens” as a mass-market paperback, a Kindle ebook, a HarperCollins audiobook, and also as an Amazon TV serial, at which point you may also want to check out the script book, the TV serial reference book, and even the BBC Radio 4 adaptation.