By that I mean, first and foremost, badly written. Pratchett has never been a great stylist but he's always had a distinctive style, a sardonic, wildly inventive, and of course quite funny narrative voice with which he establishes a setting, a character, and a mood in a few quick sentences or a line of dialogue. That sharpness is missing from Snuff, and particularly from its first hundred pages, in which its scene and premise are established. Instead we get long, belabored paragraphs that lay their information before us inelegantly and with little flair. Take, for example, the following bit of dialogue:
"I have no objection to people taking substances that make them feel better or more contented, or, for that matter, see little dancing purple fairies--or even their god if it comes to it. It's their brain, after all, and society can have no claim on it, providing they're not operating heavy machinery at the time. However, to sell drugs to trolls that actually make their heads explode is simply murder, the capital crime. I am glad to say that Commander Vimes fully agrees with me on this issue."There are a number of things wrong with this paragraph. First, and most obviously, it's not funny, and what little bit of joke there was to begin with is smothered to death by the long, circuitous, increasingly pious route that the argument takes on its way to the punchline, piling sub-clause upon sub-clause in its haste to establish the Correct position on drugs. Then there's the completely overblown, overemphasized conclusion--did you know that selling people a substance that kills them is murder, and that murder is a crime? And that this is a stance on which one would be glad to find others in agreement with one? And then the obvious deck-stacking involved in the implausible, economically untenable concept of a drug that makes its users' heads explode (later in the novel we're told that this only happens after several hits, but that's still a pretty shoddy business model when you consider that trafficking in these drugs is punishable by death), which is paid off later in the novel when the villains turn out to be drug dealers, whom we can now hate without compromising our libertarian principles.
But what's really wrong with this paragraph is that it is spoken by Vetinari. The man who in other Discworld novels conveys volumes with a word or even a raised eyebrow is here reduced to so much empty drivel. Nor is he alone--Snuff is characterized by a tendency to use fifty words where ten would have made the point so much better. When we first see Vimes, he is miserably trying to alleviate the itching caused by his socks. A previous Discworld novel would have deemed it sufficient tell us that "For the hundredth time he considered telling his wife that among her sterling qualities, and they were many, knitting did not feature" and leave us to draw the obvious conclusion from the fact that Vimes doesn't. Snuff not only feels it incumbent upon it to explain that to malign her knitting would break Sybil's heart, but goes on to explain that
Samuel Vimes, who had never gone into a place of worship with religious aforethought, worshiped Lady Sybil, and not a day went past without his being amazed that she seemed to do the same to him. He had made her his wife and she had made him a millionaire; with her behind him the sad, desolate, penniless and cynical copper was a rich and powerful duke.Even if we take this as a potted introduction to both characters, it's terribly awkward and creates an impression of them that is sadly borne out by the rest of the book, in which the Vimes marriage, delicately established in previous books as a loving bond between two complicated people who value and respect each other's individuality, is turned into a no less loving, but much more aggravating, stream of marital clichés--Sybil is "a higher power," Vimes muses that there is "no point in arguing with Sybil, because even if you thought that you'd won, it would turn out, by some magic unavailable to husbands, that you had, in fact, been totally misinformed" while Sybil "took the view that her darling husband's word was law for the City Watch while, in her own case, it was a polite suggestion to be graciously considered", and much is made of her ironclad control over Vimes's diet.
Snuff begins with Sybil having exerted her Little Woman powers to shanghai Vimes into a vacation in the country, where she is a major landowner. Or rather, where Vimes is the landowner, Sybil having transferred her estates to him upon their marriage. At first glance, this is actually a rather brilliant premise. Vimes's trajectory throughout the Discworld series has been one of meteoric ascent, from Captain to Commander, from Commander to Knight, from Knight to Duke. These last two should pose a problem for the staunchly republican Vimes, but Pratchett has been careful to use his elevated circumstances to bring Vimes in contact with an increasingly prominent class of criminals. Every time he rises in rank, his opponents rise as well--as Sir Samuel, he bumps heads with the Ankh Morpork aristocracy; as His Grace, the Duke of Ankh, he deals with foreign heads of state--and they treat him with the same familiar disdain, thus validating Vimes's self-image as an underdog, and justifying his participation in the aristocratic system by arguing that the title opens doors and enables his police work (from which, to Vimes's mind, his only true authority stems). Snuff reverses this trend. It strips the vacationing Vimes of his policeman's badge and confronts him with people who are not only his social inferiors but his actual tenants. Which is obviously a very meaty, fresh angle on the character, and when Jethro, the local blacksmith, confronts Vimes, who is gingerly trying on the role of magnanimous landlord, with the simple fact that he has become something he used to hate, and challenges him to explain by what right he should have so much while others have so little, it really seems as if the novel might do something new with the character.
Unfortunately, doing something new with Vimes doesn't seem to be on Pratchett's to do list. He undercuts Jethro by depicting him as a bullying oaf, and by showing us that many of the people he claims to speak for actually value the feudal system (which is, obviously, an important part of the debate about class, but not when that debate is as one-sided as it is in Snuff). Later, when the novel's actual plot emerges, the class issue is shoved to the side. Jethro is kidnapped, Vimes rescues him, and it turns out that his dislike of nobility stems from a run-in with the other, bad aristocrats, who just happen to be the villains of the novel and the people Vimes is about to arrest. True, at Snuff's end, Jethro is still distrustful of the aristocracy. But he's also become a local constable and accepts Vimes's superiority as a policeman. The message seems to be that as long as there is a law, and that law is applied equally to rich and poor alike, it doesn't matter if one man lives in a castle and the other in a hovel, or if the class system tells both that one is better than the other. This is iffy in itself, but it also has the effect of making Vimes seem like a smaller, pettier person than he used to be. He spends the early portions of the novel halfheartedly poking at the injustice of the feudal system, but it soon becomes clear that what's bothering him is the possibility that someone might mistake him for a willing, rather than grudging, participant in it. When a tenant recalls his grandfather's gratitude to the former lord for giving him a half-dollar, Vimes "squirmed inside, knowing that the supposedly generous old drunkard would have had more money than you could ever imagine, and here was a working man pathetically grateful for a hand-out from the old piss artist." The rage that characterizes Vimes is replaced with this squirming embarrassment, which prioritizes his own ability to feel good about himself over the question of whether there actually is something to feel good about.
In light of this, it's perhaps fortunate that the class warfare angle is dropped almost as soon as it is introduced (nor is this the only plot element in Snuff to be so unceremoniously discarded; an early scene acts as an extended Pride and Prejudice parody and even involves Vimes inspiring the Discworld equivalent of Jane Austen, but all the characters involved disappear until the novel's epilogue, where their sole purpose is to be part of an especially clunky joke). This is in favor of that perennial Discworld, and particularly Sam Vimes, theme, A Reviled Non-Human Species is Oppressed, Now Let's Learn That Prejudice is Wrong. Having gone over this ground with dwarfs, trolls, golems, vampires, werewolves, zombies, gnomes, orcs, and even women, Pratchett seems content to throw a few of the template's greatest hits at the page, and the result is muddled and contradictory.
The Reviled Non-Human Species this time around are goblins, who are apparently viewed as vermin for their disgusting superstitions about bodily fluids. Or maybe they're viewed as vermin because their desperate conditions force them to live in squalor. Several characters comment on the goblins' downtrodden demeanor, the way that they've bought into society's disdain for them, but then a local author informs Vimes that they actually have a rich, complicated culture that they conceal from humans (naturally, she disappears from the narrative after imparting this information). Slavery comes into the story at one point, but so halfheartedly that its sole purpose seems to be to make the rather obvious point that Slavery is Wrong, without exploring any of the reasons that it is nevertheless tolerated--despite drawing a connection between slavery and luxury goods like tobacco, Snuff avoids the question of society's complicity in slavery, and by embracing the canonical, 18th and 19th century form of slavery is lets its readers, most of whom benefit from slave labor, off the hook. Instead, Snuff roots slavery in the dehumanization of the goblins, who are viewed so universally as un-people that it is necessary to pass a law that makes it illegal to enslave them. But then it tells us that it is possible to reverse this prejudice in a single night, when Sybil arranges for a concert of goblin music, which is apparently ethereally beautiful.
It would have been possible, I suppose, to weave these contradictory strands together into a whole, but Pratchett doesn't seem terribly interested in creating a coherent, compelling goblin culture (there are, for example, very few speaking goblin characters in the novel, and most of the ones we get are rather bland). The goblins are merely an excuse, a justification for Vimes to do his thing, and a means of his further glorification. Most of Snuff is spent extolling the virtues of Sam Vimes--her simpering adoration of him is one of the many ways in which the novel lobotomizes Sybil--and many insufferable passages are given over to achieving this end. In a particularly galling instance, the local constable, Feeney, arrives at the hall to arrest Vimes on a trumped-up charge. Vimes responds with what is essentially "do you know who I am, boy?" to which Feeney responds by quoting a speech by Vimes to new policemen telling them exactly where that kind of statement should be stuffed. And yet somehow, Vimes not only feels no shame at having been called out in this manner, but manages to wrest the moral high ground away from Feeney, and is later validated in this by both the young constable and the narrative. Pratchett seems to feel that he can counteract this celebration of all things Vimes by stressing Vimes's awareness of the darkness that lies within him.
It was just his own human darkness and internal enemy, which knew his every thought, which knew that every time Commander Vimes dragged some vicious and inventive murderer to such mercy or justice as the law in its erratic wisdom determined, there was another Vimes, a ghost Vimes, whose urge to chop that creature into pieces on the spot had to be chained. This, regrettably, was harder every time, and he wondered if one day that darkness would break out and claim its heritage, and he wouldn't know ... the brakes and chains and doors and locks in his head would have vanished and he wouldn't know.The problem is that we've heard this too many times before. It wasn't terribly believable the first time--Pratchett almost certainly wasn't going to drag his favorite character so low--and by now we know that Vimes isn't going to give into his darkness, and especially not in a novel in which that darkness, and Vimes's signature rage, feel so muted and so paper-thin. The effect is to make both Vimes and Pratchett seem like posers, who like to talk about darkness but have no real idea of what it is. And, of course, it means that there's no contrast to the entirely pro-Vimes slant of the rest of the novel.
As that paragraph demonstrates, Snuff's prose stabilizes quite a bit after its first hundred pages--with fewer infodumps and character and setting introductions, Pratchett settles into a by-now familiar rhythm. But this doesn't make Snuff a particularly funny novel. The main recurring gag involves Vimes's manservant Wilkins. Originally introduced as a caricature of the proper English butler who could just barely suppress his sneer at Vimes's uncouthness and his gauche insistence on doing things like shaving himself, Wilkins was transformed into a gung-ho soldier in 1997's Jingo, and in Snuff he's a former street tough whose propriety is a thin gloss concealing terrifyingly inventive killer instincts, and whose main function is as Vimes's bodyguard. Though I found the Jingo-era Wilkins more interesting than the effortlessly lethal Wilkins in Snuff, I might have been willing to tolerate him on the grounds that this sort of drift is common to secondary characters in Pratchett novels. But on top of being overused as a plot device (particularly as a way of allowing Vimes to avoid ethical quandaries without letting the bad guys get away unpunished), Wilkins is overused as a joke. When you consider that the first "proper English butler is actually a berserk street tough" joke about this character was made three Vimes books and fourteen years ago, harping on it again and again throughout Snuff just seems lazy. The freshest jokes in Snuff revolve around Young Sam, here a scientifically-minded, poo-obsessed six-year-old, but they have the effect of recalling the superior use of this character in the previous Vimes novel, Thud!, where another of his obsessions (with the picture book Where's My Cow?) drew roars of laughter where Snuff's repeated scenes of Young Sam searching out exotic specimens of excrement elicit only chuckles.
I fell in love with Terry Pratchett's writing nearly twenty years ago, but that infatuation has faded, and for the better part of the last decade I've felt a little like someone who lets fondness and the memory of better days blind her to the fact that the spark isn't there any more. I don't know if Snuff is my breakup novel. Maybe I'll stop reading Pratchett entirely. Maybe I'll stop reading Vimes novels. And maybe by the time his next book comes out the good memories will have won out over the bad. What I do know is that after this book I'll never be able to approach a Pratchett novel with the same expectations--modest as they were--that I did before, and that there's a part of me that wishes I'd given him up before this book, and left myself with rosier memories.