DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY (Douglas Adams, 1987).
Douglas Adams is my hero, and I loved this book (without quite getting it) when I first read it nearly 30 years ago.
I’ve just reread it for a workplace bookclub.
There are things to say.
Adams’s reputation rests on the first three Hitchhiker’s Guide books and particularly the first two, which are works of comedic genius on par with Wodehouse and Wilde. They’re dark books, but only in Life, the Universe, and Everything is darkness the primary colour. Not the least bit coincidentally, that was the first true novel Adams had written: the first two H2G2 books adapt (‘novelize’) his own landmark radio serials, and move between comic setpieces at sometimes frightening speed. Nothing in the first two books outstays its welcome — you want more of everything. They’re magical novels, both intellectually serious satire and perfectly pitched farce. But Life (not Liff), his best Proper Novel, needs not only to be hysterically funny but to work at a structural level the earlier books don’t even try for. And this wasn’t Adams’s strong suit. He only pulled it off the once.
Life is a sublime book. So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish is a good book that I’ve never, ever wanted to reread. Mostly Harmless is a lugubrious book, and reads like a suicide note; Adams all but disavowed it, and you can’t blame him.
Dirk Gently combines elements of Adams’s late-70s Doctor Who serial ‘Shada’ with a modern-London setting, and lands somewhere between the sometimes-laboured So Long and the leaden Mostly Harmless. Dirk himself isn’t yet fully formed — no wonder, as he only turns up halfway through the book — Richard is a crashing bore, the sf and ‘literary’ elements seem respectively halfhearted and half-finished (Adams himself acknowledged that the Coleridge ending makes little sense), and the whole thing feels like a short story’s worth of plot stretched to novel length.
Worst of all: it’s not particularly funny.
Dirk, like portions of Life and all of the suggestively titled So Long, feels like an attempt to off the mantle of ‘funny sf writer.’ The trouble is that the heady intellectualism and philosophical savagery of his early/best work would’ve been unbearable without his ensemble-comic release valve — I’ve written about the series’s carnival of horrors before. Adams’s early books are welcoming, they’re high spirited, but they’re not gentle or light; there’s just no time to weep because there’s a great joke every other sentence. Dirk Gently, on the other hand, spends pages at a time on dreary evocations of dreary landscapes populated by dreary characters; partly that feels like perversity, partly like Adams growing enamored of a story set in his own daily life-world rather than Wacky Sci-Fi, even of a satirical sort. Richard’s life isn’t remotely interesting, Gordon Way is barely a character at all, Susan feels like a portrait of someone in Adams’s life whom he can’t/won’t exaggerate into a figure with any comic juice…Adams binds himself to our world, and as So Long already demonstrated, he never quite thrived there. Unlike his parallel-writer Terry Pratchett, he couldn’t write warmly without getting bogged down — he was most at home in the vast cold emptiness of The Galaxy. And he obviously didn’t have Pratchett’s affection or knack for carefully plotted novels; his heart wasn’t in them.
So Dirk Gently isn’t a successful novel; it’s a middling novel written by a genius who’s stepping out of his comfort zone and isn’t quite sure what to do next. Halfway through the six-year span between So Long and his angry sad beautiful travelogue Last Chance to See — which he’d follow with Mostly Harmless, his last real book — Adams wrote about a milquetoast Englishman yoinked around by a charismatic asshole whose head contains stuff he’d rather not deal with, the old spaceship-flying eccentric who shows them what the universe is really like,1 the sensible woman who’s mostly in the background, and a robot with a serious emotional disorder. Perhaps the problem is that the book lacks its Ford Prefect: the character with a dramatic arc to follow…
I enjoyed reading Dirk — like I said, Adams is my hero, one of my favourite writers, and I intuitively understand his books’ emotional and intellectual spectra — but I fear I’d only recommend it to DNA completists.
Sidenote: Now I want to read one of Aleister Crowley’s ‘Simon Iff’ stories — or one of Michael Moorcock’s ‘Jerry Cornelius’ stories. I do wonder whether they were direct influences on/inspirations for Dirk himself…
- Yes, I’ve just noticed Slartibartfast’s own resemblance to the Doctor. In my defense, I’m no Whovian. ↩