Paper Kingdom Writer's Hall of Fame

Douglas Adams

Douglas Adams

Douglas Adams has his own day. May 25 is Towel Day, and his fans celebrate his works by carrying a towel. If you have to ask, "Why a towel?" then you are not a hoopy frood. If you don't experience a brief glow of joy whenever the number 42 arises somehow during your day, then your knowledge of the universe is sorely lacking. And if you are reading this and seriously have no idea what I'm talking about, then where the hell have you been?

I'm talking, of course, about the author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. A trilogy that happens to be five books long. Which makes perfect sense, because had he called it the Hitchhiker's Dekology and only written five books, folks would have called him a quitter. But, hey, that guy who wrote a five volume trilogy? Now there's a real go-getter.

The first entry in the series, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, exists as a book, a radio play, a television series, a movie, and computer game. Adams had a hand in the creation of all of them. If somehow it could have been made edible, there would have a line of Hitchhiker's Guide frozen dinners. Though it's not true, it really does seem as if Adams spent his entire life writing and rewriting one story. This might make him look like a workaholic, but don't believe that either. He once said, "I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by. " Which would explain why he only managed to write seven novels in his entire life. Issac Azimov once wrote seven novels on his way to the toilet, then seven more while having a sit-down.

But if you want funny, look no further than Douglas Adams' expansive trilogy. I first encountered it as a computer game. I sat at my Color Computer for weeks trying to get a fish to land in my ear. (Look, some of these things you're either going to have to go with me on, or read the books. I don't have the time or bandwidth to catch you up on everything.) So I bought the first book of the series hoping it would help me beat the game. It didn't. But it did make me laugh out loud in hysterics at rather inappropriate times during school.

Douglas Adams specialized in weird situations that somehow make sense in the context of the book. Like Ford Prefect casually suggesting to the foreman of a demolition crew that it would be helpful if he could lie down in front of his own bulldozer. A gifted comedian can turn the mundane into something bizarre. But it takes a once-in-a-century talent to make the bizarre seem mundane. It's the transformation that makes it funny, and Adams was the best at it.

But he was more than funny. His writing was razor sharp. His phrasing crisp and exact. Like this: he describes a character's bewilderment, saying he was "as stunned as a man might be who, having believed himself to be totally blind for five years, suddenly discovers he had merely been wearing too large a hat." The perfect combination of words. Take away the word "merely," for instance, and it would still be a complete and proper sentence, but it wouldn't pace correctly. And it wouldn't be funny. He had more tricks than Blackstone and wielded them with the same miracle of grace and wonderment. He was the master of the Long List. That's a rambling roll call of actions or items that build off one another and rise to a completely unexpected climax. Such as the paragraph-long list of items Arthur Dent finds blocking his doorway upon returning home after six months. He discovers several offers for a credit card he already has, bills for credit cards he doesn't have, advertisements for a fashionable but ugly wallet, and a dead tabby kitten. That you laugh at the presence of a dead cat means you are in the presence of genius.

I've taken these examples both from So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish because I'm rereading it now. While I've read the other four at least four times each, I've read this one only twice. But each time was a radically different experience. So Long and Thanks for All the Fish is different than the others. For one thing, it takes place mostly on Earth. So the humor is grounded more than usual in everyday occurrences. And it contains a romance. An incredibly hilarious romance, but a love story nonetheless. As a sixth-grade boy, I couldn't relate to such an adult story. I wanted more robots, more whales exploring their identities before splashing into a planet they had never seen before. Not misplaced phone numbers and awkward yet cute conversations over tea. Plus there was the language barrier I could hardly be expected to overcome at such a young age. Did you know the English call cookies "biscuits?" In America, biscuits are something completely different. As Arthur described opening a pack of biscuits to snack on after lunch, I kept imagining him unrolling the outer paper from the cardboard tube then popping open the vacuum seal as raw dough softly exploded from the split seam. Why you would do this at a cafe table, I couldn't for the life of me figure out.

But the second time I read So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (I'm sure Adams is somewhere enjoying my frustration at having to type these long titles over and over--I think I broke a shift key), I was older and had actually experienced a relationship with a girl-type person. The book I had written off as the worst of the lot took on new life. I enjoyed the quiet humor of trying to impress a girl while all you can think of is how to remove her clothes as quickly as possible. I now find this book to be the best in the series. Arthur finally has a motivation beyond self preservation and a cup of hot tea.

Adams wrote two novels outside the Hitchhiker's universe, and they're good. They involve a private detective who believes in the holistic connection of all things, and the simple event of a lost dog somehow connects to an unknown threat to the universe itself. Dirk Gently charges by the day and adds on expenses but is willing to save the whole of creation for gratis. Like I said, the books are very funny, but the characters are nowhere as memorable as Arthur Dent or Ford Prefect or Marvin the Paranoid Android or Zaphod the two-headed, three-armed, ultra cool president of the galaxy. When Adams is remembered, it is for those characters.

While he was never a prolific writer, as I pointed out, it was always interesting to once in a while wonder when his next book would be published. Now the answer to that question will always be "Never." He left us too early. His publisher released an incomplete version of his final work, and it shows such promise, it makes me ache. When it came across the web that he had died, his fans organized the first Towel Day two weeks later. I wore my towel to work and didn't care what anyone thought. I now raise a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster and toast a lost friend I never knew. He didn't believe in god or the afterlife. But I've never been able to accept that great artists can just go away from us forever. I picture him now, at Milliways, listening to Procal Harum on his iPod, surfing the web on his Mac, finding this essay, and smiling quietly to himself.

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