Suppose the Apocalypse were scheduled and no-one came. This isn’t quite what happens in Good Omens. Rather, the Apocalypse is scheduled and it all goes wrong—or right, depending upon one’s point of view.
In their Introduction to the 2006 edition of their 1990 novel, the authors refer to paperbacks being dropped in the bath. I bought this volume not to be read in the bath but to read on the bus. It seemed just the thing. A little levity goes a long way towards easing the pains of the 99B Broadway bus in Vancouver, which can sometimes be hell in itself, or at least a penance to be endured. Gaiman is probably best known for graphic novels, (I own only one graphic novel V for Vendetta), but I was familiar with Neverwhere, the television series, which I not so furtively re-watch at least once a year courtesy of my DVD player.
So. Good Omens. It’s iconoclastic, irreverent, but not blasphemous, witty, perhaps at times a little self-consciously so, highly allusive, and overall a good read that stands the test of nearly a quarter century. But then what’s a quarter century when one’s considering eternity? The novel’s prologue introduces us to Aziraphale, the angel set to guard the gate of Eden who has been “worrying all afternoon” about having given his flaming sword to Adam and Eve because he felt so sorry for them given the weather and the “vicious animals.” He’s discussing his dilemma with the serpent, Crawly, who himself is “wondering whether the apple thing wasn’t the right the thing to do” (5). We next meet angel and demon in the twentieth century. Their eternal responsibilities have meant that both of them have been on earth since the beginning. Crawly has become Crowley and one of his “better achievements” (16) was creating the M25. He received a commendation for the Spanish Inquisition (36). Aziraphale has adopted the form of an antiquarian bookseller.
Being the permanent representatives of each other’s side in the eternal war between good and evil, Aziraphale and Crowley have worked out “the sort of sensible arrangement that many isolated agents, working in awkward conditions a long way from their superiors, reach with their opposite number when they realize that they have more in common with their immediate opponents than their remote allies (43). When Crowley is given the responsibility of delivering the baby Antichrist to a maternity home staffed by the Satanic order of nuns the Chattering Order of Saint Beryl, he realizes that the end of the world means “endless Heaven or, depending who won, endless Hell.” Remembering that “you couldn’t get a decent drink in either of them” (23), he can’t decide which is the worse prospect. And besides, “he rather liked people” (38). Aziraphale is depressed by the thought of no “Regency silver snuffboxes” (42) and “not one single sushi restaurant” (56). Faced with these horrors, the angel and the demon agree to endeavour to avert the Apocalypse.
However, their task is not easy. There is the problem of what actually happened to the baby Antichrist after he was delivered to the Chattering Order. There’s the problem of there being only one copy left of Agnes Nutter’s “Nice and Accurate Prophecies.” There is the whole question of the divine order of things and their own understanding of obedience to divine will. And then, of course, there’s the human factor.
Enter—along with assorted American diplomats and soldiers, paintballing businessmen, peers of Hell, Satan, and the Voice of God, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; actually three men and a woman on motorbikes, and an international express driver—Anathema Device, the descendent of seer Agnes Nutter; Newton Pulsifier, a witchfinding descendent of Witchfinder Thou-shalt-not-commit-adultery Pulsifier; Madame Tracey, elderly call girl and part-time Medium; Shadwell, a witchfinder Sergeant, and Adam Young, leader of the Them of Tadfield and his dog, Dog.
They all play their predestined (?) parts. Or sort of. Or perhaps not quite. Only the deceased Agnes Nutter seems to have any real insight into the events, and she is quite combusted. And, of course, Adam Young who naively but assertively suggests that if you “stop messin’ them [people] about they might start thinkin’ properly an’ they might stop messin’ the world around” (364). Food for thought, indeed.
Pratchett and Gaiman are not the first to treat the war between good and evil with humour and even slapstick comedy. Good Omens belongs firmly in the morality tradition of such earlier works as Mankynde. Where perhaps it is very much a post-reformation work is in its celebration of the human. Even as one laughs and thinks that possibly the authors may go a little far for those of certain religious sensibilities, one cannot avoid realising that they deal albeit in a light-hearted way with the challenges of free will. Crowley finds it “a bugger” (38). Despite Aziraphale’s attempts, some time around 1020, to explain the doctrine of the fortunate fall to Crowley—“People couldn’t become truly holy, he said, unless they had the opportunity to be definitively wicked.” I suspect Crowley is not alone when he responds to that idea as “lunatic,” and he’s certainly not the first to be challenged by the idea that the order of the universe is “ineffable” (39).
While the world may not end in the novel, the book itself must, and it ends as it began with stolen fruit. “People made such a fuss abut people eating their silly old fruit anyway, but life would be a lot less fun if they didn’t. And there never was an apple, in Adam’s opinion, that wasn’t worth the trouble you got into eating it (398). Words to ponder.