Dodger – Terry Pratchett

A geezer, now, well, a geezer is somebody that everybody knows, and he knows everybody, and maybe he knows something about everyone he knows that maybe you wished he didn’t know. Um, and well, he’s sharp, crafty, um, not exactly a thief but somehow things find their way into their hands. Doesn’t mind a bit of mischief, and wears the street like an overcoat.”

That’s Dodger all right, a proper geezer and a tosher to boot. Which, in case you didn’t know, is a sort of sewers scavenger. To paraphrase the book, toshers look for value in the things people above throw away, the things they don’t care about. Pratchett’s homage to Charles Dickens, a story he has probably wanted to write for a long time, is very much interested in this toshing business, literally and metaphorically. From the very start we get a strong sense of that:

“The drains and sewers were overflowing, throwing up ­– regurgitating, as it were – the debris of muck, slime and filth, the dead dogs, the dead rats, cats and worse; bringing back up to the world of men all those things that they thought they had left behind them; jostling and gurgling and hurrying towards the overflowing and always hospitable river Thames; bursting its banks, bubbling in a dreadful cauldron; the river itself gasping like a dying fish.”

The approach to imagery is obviously Dickensian but identifiably Pratchettian at the same time. Come to think of it, Pratchett donning the mantle of Dickens is an alignment of literary traditions that makes a lot of sense. Their works are compatible in terms of social and ethical themes, wit and tableaux (the city, mostly). Not to mention sheer volume and popularity. In Dodger these similarities are amped up, and Pratchett has made considerable efforts to mimic the sentimentality and pathetic fallacy typically found in Dickens:

“But right now, the only monsters in Fleet Street, he had been told, were the printing presses whose thumping made the pavement shake, and which demanded to be fed every day with a diet of politics, ‘orrible murders and death.”

And just in case you have never heard of Dickens or, alternatively, are quite thick, Pratchett has included him as a character in the novel, a central one at that. Other notable appearances of historical and fictional figures include Sweeny Todd, Benjamin Disraeli, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and young Karl Marx, even though only vicariously. And Dodger, of course.

The story is simple, generic and sentimental, no surprises there. On one of his regular night runs Dodger saves a young lady from a couple of thugs intent on bringing an end to her. It then turns out the lady is possibly foreign and also tightly connected to the sort of people Dodger has made a point of avoiding. Soon, however, those same people come looking for him and the lady. So Dodger must do what he does best. Dodge.

Admittedly, Pratchett’s Victorian London could be more vivid and detailed, but even as it is the tour is worth the time spent. Mostly because of Dodger, a guide that can take you from the smelliest nooks to the poshest crannies. He is a decently-imagined and written character, but in addition to that he is Pratchett’s primary focusing lens in this novel. The whole idea of toshing and dodging, of recycling the discarded and recognizing the opportunities in every aspect of life – that is etched in Dodger and his development along the story. The issue of social (im)mobility features heavily, as could be expected, but so does a motif much more modern – the fundamental instability of the concept of truth.

The latter is given literal and metaphorical depths through the pronounced and orchestrated use of symbolism. That is, Pratchett foists into the text a complex of ideas that is profoundly alien to Victorian mores, piggybacking on some of the most conventional tricks of the period. Something that could and should be expected of him, being Pratchett and all that. This conceptual layer, though, is not treated in too subtle a way, as it is given solid verbal shape on at least a couple of occasions:

“And he cried real tears, which was quite easy to do, and it shocked him inside, and he wondered if there was anything in the boy called Dodger that was totally himself, pure and simple, not just a whole packet of Dodgers.”

Herein lies one of the greatest strengths and major shortcoming of Pratchett’s writing. He almost always deals with big topics and moral conundrums that are important not merely in the worlds of imagination but in our own too, just as much. His books are a wonderful and non-obvious entry into humanistic thought. As such, though, they rarely take the reader into deeper, harder to chart territories. I am quite certain this has been a deliberate career choice somewhere along the way – to preserve a touch of simplicity and naiveté – and surely his popularity hinges on that as much as on almost anything else. So it is hard to say whether taking that decision wasn’t for the better. I can’t stop wondering though…

As far as humor goes, Dodger is not among Pratchett’s funniest, and I think that was intended as well. It is, after all, a book that deals with very serious and sometimes grave topics, such as extreme poverty, homeless people and violence against women and children. Plus, it has at least a dash of the historical novel in its DNA. The wit in Pratchett’s writing, though, is consistently top-notch. Consider, for instance, how he uses puns to aid the flow of the novel:

“The man gave Dodger a cursory glance which had quite a lot of curse in it and then looked up Charlie, who got the kind of smile that you get when people know you have money.”

Puns enrich the situational imagery through simple but unexpected verbal association. They are not simply a demonstration of wit, but of style as well. Or maybe style through wit, which is a rather apt description of Pratchett’s prose, an author who relies heavily on authorial voice. Which holds doubly true of a book with a sort-of-omniscient narrator. Definitions aside, the texture of the novel benefits significantly from said verbal performance, which in Pratchett’s case is much more than mere mannerism.

And by this I do not mean to give the impression that he is a wordsmith made of sophistication. On the contrary, this is an author whose writing can be exemplified fairly well through the following sentence: “As the bells tolled five o’clock, Mrs Sharples woke up, making a noise that could best be expressed as Blort!” This delightful alloy of wit and crudity, a trademark of Pratchett, is a major vehicle for his ideas and by now he has mastered it almost completely. It does feel a bit repetitive after you have read a dozen or so novels, but then again it is the sort of repetitiveness that one can really appreciate.

To put a cap on the review, Dodger is good stuff. It is somewhat different stuff, but less so than The Long Earth, and it flows very pleasantly, sprinkled generously with easily-digestible wisdom. Not mind-altering stuff, definitely, but healthy and fun nevertheless.

7/10

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