Douglas Adams, MOSTLY HARMLESS.

by waxbanks

The funny thing about Douglas Adams is that he got less funny as he went along. The Guide was his first great solo work; it contains several of the great comic setpieces in (I am reliably informed) all of SF. Then came Restaurant, which is even funnier — his best, I think — but maybe lacks the delirium of the first radio series/novel. And then there was Life, the Universe, and Everything, which was his first Proper Novel, and which is nearly as funny as the first two but suffused with a deeper melancholy. It ends with people walking off, dejected.

The Dirk Gently books are kinda funny, but (if I remember rightly) the best joke is the protagonist’s name — hell, Adams recycled a line from the Guide for the title of the second, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. I remember the first Dirk book as a Good Novel, and certain images from the story are still with me twenty-five years later, but I’ve never felt even the slightest inclination to revisit it. Last Chance to See is funny but mostly sad and angry and awestruck; those are the major elements of the Guide books but the proportions had gotten all switched around by then. So Long… is intermittently funny, but laden with Significance and Emotion and Adams’s shifting loyalties to his characters. (It’s worth noting that Zaphod Beeblebrox doesn’t turn up in the last two HHGG novels, but the catastrophically unfunny Fenchurch takes up page after page of So Long…)

Mostly Harmless is funny perhaps one percent of the time. The rest of the time it’s a horribly bleak shaggy dog joke disguised as two horribly bleak novellas glued together: the saga of Trillian on one of infinite alternate Earths, wondering what life would’ve been like had she left that party with Zaphod, and the story of Ford and Arthur having one last adventure in spacetime. Arthur’s daughter Random turns up; she’s barely a character. A surprisingly large, theoretically exciting number of callbacks to earlier novels in the series occur, but they add up to nothing. The ending is abrupt, which is no big deal, and dumb, which is a very big deal indeed — Stavro’s bar is no way to pay off the memorably creepy/funny/sad Agrajag scene from earlier in the series.

In the end, every possible Earth is destroyed for no reason, and the story falls apart and blows away in the endless void of space.

Adams apparently regretted ending the series this way, blaming its bleakness on a bout of depression. I sympathize.

If the book were moving, I wouldn’t resent its clumsiness and lack of anything resembling comedy (modulo some brief bits of Ford/Arthur banter); if it were funny, I wouldn’t mind that it’s as emotionally involving as a wet dishrag. Douglas Adams was and is one of my heroes; seeing him speak at MIT was one of the greatest nights of my life. I understand that Adams wanted to write Proper Novels instead of the pieced-together picaresques which made his name, and I think he possessed an extraordinary talent — his best work is philosophical comedy of the highest order — but Mostly Harmless is a grave disappointment. Pardon me for saying this, but: I wish he hadn’t written it.

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