My father exposed me to several now-historic cornerstones of British comedy and pop-culture at an early age, he himself being a fan of the original Doctor Who and Monty Python’s Flying Circus when both used to air on PBS in the late 70s and early 80s. Back then, both programs were niche oddities that one had to stumble across late at night to be able to even know about and consume in the United States, much less become an avid follower of. How fortunate for me Dad took a liking to their dry and quirky humor, because part of the net result for his children was me being introduced to Douglas Adams around the 5th or 6th grade.
To my shame, this is the first time I have found myself able to sit down and complete reading the beginning entry in Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series. This is not for a lack of trying, mind you, I know for a fact I’ve owned at least three or four separate copies of the novel at one time or another, and have read the first hundred pages or so in countless different attempts to pick it up. Despite my best intentions, I’ve managed to find one reason or another to put the book down until now.
Why would this be? The easiest explanation may just be pre-adolescent laziness, but I think the heart of the problem stems from a more genuine and deeply rooted anxiety. When you approach notable works of fiction that have accrued substantial fan bases and acclaim even within the literary community as important and influential, I really believe there’s a certain level of apprehension and intimidation that begins to color new readers’ relationship with that work.
There’s a lot of pressure to react positively. To put a restrictive lens on your interaction with the text. What if you start reading and find sections of the book boring? What if you don’t end up gleaning the fresh insights that others did upon their first experience with the novel? Does it mean there’s something wrong with you? Does it mean you are less intelligent or cultured? How can your opinion on the piece possibly be considered valid or meaningful when there is a widely accepted consensus on how the book should be read and internalized?
I have found part of my development as an adult reader has included coming to terms with these hang ups and permitting myself to be as removed or un-removed from the expectations that have been built up from my childhood surrounding these great segments of nerd-dom that sit omnipresent in the pop culture pantheon.
So, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. What do I think? Mostly I liked it. It’s not a terribly long book, and there’s quite a few more in the series to absorb if I’d ever be so inclined. The prose is not really the mainstay here, though to maintain the brevity-filled tone Adams strikes, I expect long lapses into finely constructed figurative language wouldn’t be terribly apt. It’s funny, though, I found myself mostly immune to the attempted charms of the first hundred pages or so, if only because they contain jokes, as I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve read more times than I have fingers to count on.
I maintain throughout, the zanier tangents Adams indulges in here or there sometimes lack the depth or punch of the existential and philosophical riffing he does such a good job at in other moments. Luckily this only plagues about a quarter of the text in its entirety, with the remaining bits being wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, full of brutally facetious quips meant to shed light on the general absurdity and futility of trying to make meaning out of an existence that offers no obvious answers. Somehow, these jokes are achieved with an all-around light-hearted (or at least good natured) and irreverently silly delivery that leaves you wanting to laugh and reach for a glass of wine rather than sigh and pull out a loaded gun.
The whole business with the mice is probably my favorite part, specifically the history of the supercomputer Deep Thought and the search of the Ultimate Answer. I think this passage sums it up nicely:
“‘That’s right,’ shouted Vroomfondel, ‘we demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!’
Suddenly, a stentorian voice boomed across the room.
‘Might I make an observation at this point?’ inquired Deep Thought.
‘We’ll go on strike!’ yelled Vroomfondel.
‘That’s right!’ agreed Majikthise. ‘You’ll have a national Philosopher’s strike on your hands!'”
Marvin the robot is probably my favorite character, with his unapologetic gloomy nihilism not only hyperbolically down-trodden, but also just comically on point throughout. Adams is smart about using him to enrich scenes without going overboard, making him an effective supporting player.
“‘Funny,’ he intoned funerally, ‘How just when you think life can’t possibly get any worse, it suddenly does.'”
If you’re a student of Camus or any other early 20th century absurdist writers, there isn’t a lot here that hasn’t been touched upon before, but it is much more digestible and far less macabre than the stuffy pre-World War 2 approach to the subject. Plus, thanks to Adams, we have much of the quality existential-comedy we enjoy today, including Rick and Morty, the modern incarnation of Doctor Who, alongside many others.
Verdict: 4/5, Recommend. Thanks for all the fish.