We read a review. We browse the shelves in a library or bookstore. We scroll through the ‘recommended for you’ options from an online bookseller. We choose a book. We begin reading.
But this is not really the beginning at all. We readers, just like the authors of the books we choose, bring with us an accumulation of literary and other cultural ‘baggage’. Think of the book’s words and sentences as a fully functioning, but lightly clad, human form. In our baggage, we carry the means to clothe it further.
The Bare Form
I entertained this ‘clothing’ idea recently when reading Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. The novel’s premise is clear from the start: the Apocalypse is looming, the date is set, plans are in place. The Four Horsepersons know exactly what they need to do. All that remains is for Aziraphale (‘an angel, and part-time rare-book dealer’) and Crowley (‘an angel who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards’) to follow their instructions. What could possibly go wrong? Pretty much everything, actually. And it does. (Well, it probably does. It all depends on your understanding of the ‘ineffable plan’.)
It is entirely possible to read Good Omens – and to essentially comprehend its meaning – without any specific knowledge of the 1976 film The Omen (or the 2006 re-make), without a working knowledge of the biblical creation stories or the imagery employed by John of Patmos; it all makes sense even if you don’t instantly start humming along when you read the words ‘I see a little silhouetto of a man’ or ‘I should be so lucky’. You can skim right past a reference to ‘666 Fifth Avenue’ and ‘Tadfield Six double-six’ and not have alarm bells ring; you can gloss over ‘Brother Slug’ and ‘Sister Potato Weevil’ and not be reminded of the troubadour saint from Assisi. But, if you do, you’ll miss much of the elaborate humour woven through Pratchett and Gaiman’s collaboration.
The ‘Foundation’ Garments
What to do? If you’ve received a tip-off from someone who has already read Good Omens, you will probably have come to your reading of the book well prepared. If you hadn’t already seen The Omen, you will have found a basic plot outline and perhaps watched a few YouTube clips of pivotal scenes. You’ll have reached for a Bible (in hard copy or in myriad places online) and worked out what’s going on in the books of Genesis and Revelation. (Good luck with the latter – there’s many a Christian theologian who’d like to hear from you if you figure that one out.) And you’ll have tracked down Queen’s discography and familiarised yourself with their most famous lyrics.
The Outer Layers
You’re now ready to start a more informed reading experience because you’ve added some useful undergarments to your scantily clad book. But what if you really want to dress it up? Pratchett and Gaiman provide a monster wardrobe, enough to satisfy the pickiest fashionista-reader. (Remember, it’s both authors and readers who bring their baggage with them.) The Good Omens’ authors are particularly prone to name-dropping. No problem there. When you come across an unfamiliar name, you simply open up your search engine and key in ‘John Maskelyne’ or ‘Rev. Watkins’ or ‘Matthew Hopkins’ and, bingo, up pops a thumbnail sketch of a 19th century English stage magician (Maskelyne), a tramping clergyman who wrote The Old Straight Track (Watkins), and an English Civil War-era witch-hunter (Hopkins). You might also have to look up a swatch of writers, painters, composers and music groups. (The Blue Oyster Cult certainly didn’t feature on my adolescent songlist. I was more of a Peter, Paul and Mary girl.)
Sometimes the references are more oblique, and the internet won’t present an easy answer. When you reach the point in Good Omens where Sergeant Deisenburger asks Crowley, ‘did any of them kids have some space alien with a face like a friendly turd in a bike basket?’, you might be in trouble if you weren’t watching movies in the early 1980s. If you were, you’ve got a picture of E.T. in your head right now; if not, the sergeant’s enquiry could seem meaningless (and more than a little odd). [Okay, the image I’ve inserted here gives the game away entirely. I do realise that.]And how is your knowledge of popular songs from World War II? In one of Good Omens’ early scenes, Crowley suggests that he and Aziraphale ‘do the Ritz’. Chances are a good many readers have heard of the ultra swish London hotel and its legendary high teas. But how many will know the song ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’? On the magical night when two lovers meet, so the lyric goes, ‘There were angels dining at the Ritz’. Towards the end of Good Omens, the two angelic combatants return to the hotel and, this time, Pratchett and Gaiman offer a blatant clue: ‘They went to the Ritz again, where a table was mysteriously vacant. And … while they were eating, for the first time ever, a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.’ If you want to hear Vera Lynn’s 1940 version of the song, you’ll find it here on YouTube.
There are more occasions when Pratchett and Gaiman show their readers some mercy and offer up in-text clues. When lightning makes London’s skies ‘flicker like a malfunctioning fluorescent tube’, for instance, Crowley is put in mind of ‘A livid sky on London / And I knew the end was near. Who had written that?’, he wonders, ‘Chesterton, wasn’t it?’ Hints enough to find G. K. Chesterton’s ‘The Old Song’ if you fancy a diversion.
Now we come to the part of reading where we start accessorising. By this time, the book is reasonably well dressed with the necessary undergarments and outer attire. But we might have some trinkets in our personal baggage collections that suggest meanings not necessarily envisaged by a book’s author.
Take me, for instance. I was raised among hymn-singing, Methodist congregations. When I read Pratchett and Gaiman’s words ‘God moves in extremely mysterious, not to say, circuitous ways’, my mind fled straight to William Cowper’s hymn ‘God moves in a mysterious way / His wonders to perform’. Did Good Omens’ authors knowingly intend that association? Were they familiar with the hymn? I don’t know. But I know it and the association adds another flourish to my reading. My Christian upbringing also asserts itself when I read ‘One does not … pass by on the other side.’ The compassionate Aziraphale, chiding Crowley, echoes the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25-37, in case you’re interested.) And what about this line from the horseperson personifying War: ‘Think of all the toys I can offer you … think of all the games’. Does that offer contain hints of the temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11)? Obviously, the thought occurred to me. Who’s to say whether it was in Pratchett and Gaiman’s minds or not?
Here’s another accessory. On a particular dark and stormy night (and, yes, there are several of those Bulwer-Lytton nights in Good Omens), when Crowley was out driving, ‘a hard rain began to fall’. Am I the only one to have Bob Dylan’s voice in my head? (And do most of you, like me, wish it would get out of there ASAP and let someone else sing his words?)
Adding the Final ‘Bling’
Foundation garments, outer layers, accessories. All dressed up and ready to go. But wait a moment longer and the fairy godmother might appear and make your reading even more magical. Materialising from the end of her wand could be flashy little gems like Pratchett and Gaiman’s deliberate errors (‘compost mentis’ and ‘grass materialism’) along with cross-cultural mash-ups (‘A plaque on both your houses … One of those blue ones … saying “Adam Young Lived Here,” or somethin’?’).
I could go on, but why don’t you have a turn instead? If you’ve already read Pratchett and Gaiman’s book and have a favourite piece of Good Omens ‘baggage’, feel free to add it to the comments section of this post.
Links and Sources:
- Pratchett, Terry and Gaiman, Neil. Good Omens. First published in 1990 by Gollancz, London. Now available worldwide through Penguin Books. (In Australia, visit Penguin Random House.)
- You can find the full text of Good Omens online via Terry Pratchett’s fan site. This free version is handy for tracking down quotes, but if you want to read the book, consider buying it or borrowing a library copy. That way the royalties go to Pratchett’s estate and to Gaiman. And there will be a few more pennies in the publisher’s coffer to help them keep on publishing.
- The Omen: 1976 (with Gregory Peck and Lee Remick); 2006 (with Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles)
- Neil Gaiman’s website
- Terry Pratchett’s website
- If you want to discover more of the ‘hidden’ meanings in Good Omens, there’s a handy reference list on the Terry Pratchett fan site. The list includes a good number of connections that went completely over my head, including one to George Orwell’s 1984 and another to W. B. Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’.
- If you want my own 100+ Good Omens ‘baggage’ list, feel free to contact me and I’ll send it to you. (It’s not exhaustive; I ran out of energy much sooner than Pratchett and Gaiman.)
And here are the connections for the unexplained quotes mentioned above:
- John of Patmos is credited with writing Revelation, the last book of the Bible.
- ‘I see a little silhouetto of a man’ is from Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
- ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ is sung by Kylie Minogue.
- ‘666 Fifth Avenue’ and ‘Tadfield Six double-six’ – 666 is commonly referred to as ‘the Devil’s number’. You’ll find a reference to it in Revelation 13:18.
- ‘Brother Slug’ and ‘Sister Potato Weevil’ – Francis of Assisi names some elements of creation ‘Brother’ and ‘Sister’ in his ‘Canticle of the Creatures’. You can find the words in many places on the internet. Here’s a link to one site, the UK’s Third Order of the Society of Francis website.
- Blue Oyster Cult – a New York-based rock band, formed in the late 1960s.
- ‘A plaque on both your houses … One of those blue ones … saying “Adam Young Lived Here,” or somethin’?’ – In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Act 3, Scene 1) Mercutio says: I am hurt. / A plague o’ both your houses! In London today, the Blue Plaques scheme links ‘the people of the past with the buildings of the present’ (English Heritage).