Good Omens isn't funny? That's hilarious

Some early critics of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s novel said it was short of good lines. But we could spend all day citing prize zingers …

Next year, Good Omens turns 30. In those three decades, it has sold millions of copies around the world and been adapted for radio. Terry Gilliam once attempted to make a film of it and it is (probably) going to be a huge TV series later this year. Its authors, meanwhile, have both individually sold several million more books and had entire industries set up around them. But in the notes in the back of my copy of Good Omens, both Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett insist that writing the book “wasn’t a big deal”. The thing they say we should remember is that “in those days Neil Gaiman was barely Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett was only just Terry Pratchett”.

That’s not quite how I remember it. When I got hold of Good Omens, aged 14, I’d read just about everything Pratchett had published up to that point. The idea that he’d teamed up with a gothy longhair to write about the end of the world seemed about as big as book news got. By the time I realised the book existed in 1991, a year after it first came out, it was definitely a “big deal”. Unusually for a so-called fantasy book, it had received favourable reviews in the UK press (alongside the notice in the Times that generated the memorable cover quote, “not quite as sinister as the authors’ photo”) – and it was selling in huge quantities.

It had also launched in the US with considerable fanfare, and even more confusion. Publishers Weekly used the damning descriptor “zany”, while Joe Queenan in the New York Times seemed furious to be dealing with such an import. He first described the book as a cure for “the recurring disease of Anglophilia” – and then really put the boot in:

“Good Omens is a direct descendant of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a vastly overpraised book or radio programme or industry or something that became quite popular in Britain a decade ago when it became apparent that Margaret Thatcher would be in office for some time and that laughs were going to be hard to come by.”

I quote at length in humble appreciation of just how wrong we critics can be. It got worse for Queenan, who complained about “an infuriating running gag about Queen, a vaudevillian rock group whose hits are buried far in the past and should have been buried sooner”. Ah yes, Queen. Who recalls them now?

But I shouldn’t mock. It’s actually quite a witty review – and time embarrasses every critic sooner or later. My sympathy has limits, however. It’s hard to feel anything but chagrin when Queenan writes: “Obviously, it would be difficult to write a 354-page satirical novel without getting off a few good lines. I counted four.”

Oh really? Here’s four from the first four chapters:

“God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players, to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.”

“Even a casual observer could have seen that these [model aeroplanes] were made by someone who was both painstaking and very careful, and also no good at making model aeroplanes.”

“Milton Keynes is a new city approximately halfway between London and Birmingham. It was built to be modern, efficient, healthy, and, all in all, a pleasant place to live. Many Britons find this amusing.”

“There are some dogs which, when you meet them, remind you that, despite thousands of years of manmade evolution, every dog is still only two meals away from being a wolf. These dogs advance deliberately, purposefully, the wilderness made flesh, their teeth yellow, their breath astink, while in the distance their owners witter, ‘He’s an old soppy really, just poke him if he’s a nuisance,’ and in the green of their eyes the red campfires of the Pleistocene gleam and flicker.”

There are plenty more where those came from, as well as some fine running gags, quick (but wonderful) jokes about Welsh TV and several long and beautiful set-ups that only work within the context of the book. I almost pulled a muscle when I got to the end of the long sequence ending “I’ll call him dog” – but you have to be there. And I hope you do get there, because this is a funny book, no matter what Queenan says. Here’s a fifth “good line”:

“It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.”

That isn’t just amusing – it is quietly profound. Which is the other big deal about Good Omens. Perhaps people bought it for the jokes, but my suspicion is that the novel’s gentle humanism and determined irreverence resonate with readers just as much as the one-liners. Pratchett and Gaiman are both capable of good writing – but more on that next week. For now, please feel free to continue to prove poor old Queenan wrong by posting more of your favourite lines from the book. I don’t think there’ll be any shortage.


Sam Jordison

The GuardianTramp

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