Sunday, November 15, 2009

Book Review: And Another Thing... (Part Six in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series)

And Another Thing…, the continuation of the late Douglas Adams’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series, was written in part because Adams didn’t get the chance to “set things right” before his untimely death at the age of 49. Whereas the penultimate Adams “H2G2” book, So Long, and Thanks For All The Fish, ended in a happy place for most of the characters, Adams’s last entry, Mostly Harmless, sneered at the concept of happy endings, leaving many readers rather UNhappy. Not that the series was ever cheery – it does, after all, open with Earth’s destruction. However, while earlier entries balanced cynicism with an affection for humanity’s foibles, Mostly Harmless was practically nihilistic. Adams later admitted that this was a result of his being severely depressed while writing the book, and planned to end the series – again – more positively. Since his death robbed fans of that ending, Adams’s widow asked author Eoin Colfer (Artemis Fowl) to give it a shot. While many might be happy to see Adams’s characters raised from the dead, they may wonder if it was worth the effort.

It’s important to note that Adams’s stories were, often, barely stories at all. Though there are Protagonists and Events, the “when” and “how” is rarely important, and the “why” tends to stay the same – people are foolish, and life is random. Still, even lacking basic storytelling conventions, the books are genius. For one thing, they’re laugh-out-loud funny. For another, the characters are easily identifiable. And finally, even though the Events aren’t important, the Deep Thoughts that they illustrate often are.

Since four or five different versions of the saga (which originated on BBC radio and was adapted into an LP, novels, a television series, and a film – each time with major plot changes) co-existed, all written or authorized by Adams, it’s clear that he cared less about “canon” than he did about provoking laughs. In that sense, Colfer makes a valiant effort to write a “Douglas Adams book.” Most of the essential elements are there – Colfer tweaks science fiction cliche, and the situations are suitably ironic, as in Adams's books. Of course, all of the major characters are back (as are many of the minor ones). Much of the book is, in fact, quite funny. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the series.

Colfer seems to acknowledge this: in a tongue-in-cheek preface he specifies that his book is an “appendix” to the series, rather than a true part of it. Which would all be very modest and self-effacing, if it weren’t for the fact that the cover declares in big, unmistakable letters, that it is “Part Six.”

One reason And Another Thing… doesn’t succeed is that Colfer has affection for the characters, but doesn’t seem to understand them. For example, here is his introduction to Arthur Dent, the main character of the saga (and the one Adams based on himself):
“Arthur’s university yearbook actually referred to him as ‘most likely to end up living in a hole in the Scottish highlands with only the chip on his shoulder for company.’”
It goes on to paint Dent as gloomy, pessimistic, and generally unlikeable.

True, one could get that impression of Arthur from his introduction in the first book – then again, the first time we see the character is while he’s facing the impending destruction of his home. Reading further, we learn that Arthur is a fundamentally decent, if unremarkable, human being. Though he is at times irritating, he is completely understandable. He can be petty, depressed, and self-absorbed, even in the face of the extinction of his species – but he is also one of the few beings that shows humanity, even briefly, to Marvin, the deeply depressed robot he meets on his adventures. He’s never shown to be friendless or unlikeable – clearly there was a reason his alien friend chose to save him in the first place – and as the series progresses, we find that, though he is frequently confused, he is also much deeper than the “evolved” species around him give him credit for being. Neither the best nor the brightest, he represents both what is bumbling and lovable about humanity. Somehow, Colfer misses all of that, and instead focuses on readers' mistaken first impression of the character.

In fact, he does that with all of the main characters. The alien Zaphod Beeblebrox, portrayed by Adams as a genius trying to be an idiot, is simply an idiot in And Another Thing.... Trillian, the second-to-last human, transforms from someone conflicted and competent to someone alternately brittle and insipid. Dent’s rescuer, Ford Prefect, is simply comic relief – when he’s used at all. Oddly enough, the characters Colfer devotes the most time to are Adams’s throwaways. They're all vaguely recognizable, but almost imperceptibly “off.” It left me with a feeling of warped perspective, as though I were reading the book with my glasses on backwards.

Another thing Colfer gets nearly, but not quite, right, is Adams’s narrative voice. That’s forgivable – it's unfair to expect an accomplished author to imitate someone else’s style – but Colfer tries to have it both ways. He doesn’t write like Adams did, but he picks up on the things that people loved about the original books – the endless footnotes and digressions, the recurring jokes – and then repeats them endlessly. Colfer writes like he’s desperate to prove that he’s fan enough to step into Adams’s shoes. Over and over, he sticks in references to Eccentrica Gallumbits, the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast, Gargleblasters, and other Adams in-jokes. At first these references cause warm recognition – then, they become tedious. Whereas Adams sparingly used his digressive “guide entries” to illustrate some of his larger points, Colfer puts one or two on nearly every page. And, while their quantity has increased, their quality is scattershot. The overkill is exhausting and irritating in the same way that amateur fan fiction is. Meanwhile, in place of wordplay, Colfer delivers endless puns, like the names Constant Mown, Carmen Ghettim, and Aseed Preflux – and the book eventually becomes frustrating to read. Colfer tries so hard to ingratiate himself to readers that he forgets to focus on what Adams would have – there are no Deep Thoughts here, just nostalgia and reiteration.

It is obvious that Colfer loves the H2G2 universe, so the book can’t be discounted as a cynical cash-grab. It also does succeed on one level – it wraps things up tidily (well, sort of) and gives the characters a happy ending (well, kind of). If And Another Thing… doesn’t exactly have a happy ending, it still ends on a hopeful and lighthearted enough note to be a step up from the previous book. Douglas Adams was not, himself, a cynical writer, contrary to popular belief. In fact, he was a disappointed idealist – aware that things are bad, but hopeful enough to refuse to give up. If things remain as uncertain at the conclusion of And Another Thing… as they are at the beginning, it’s in keeping with the rest of the series.

Ironically, if all readers wanted was a happy ending, they already had an Adams-approved one. The radio adaptation of Mostly Harmless added a positive epilogue that the novel lacked – and, even though the radio show was made posthumously, it was based on Adams’s own notes. The BBC production (available on CD) has never been promoted to American audiences, and it’s a shame, because – happy ending or not – And Another Thing… lacks purpose. Colfer seems to have made a list of the elements he needed to include, put them together, and then, after realizing he had several parts left over, shrugged his shoulders hoping nobody would notice. Like an Ikea futon with missing screws, the book doesn’t hold up to close inspection. Colfer, who is successful enough in his own right that he didn’t need the paycheck, deserves credit for giving And Another Thing… his best effort. Unfortunately, readers would have been better served if he had just turned down the assignment in the first place.

© 2009, Christopher Stansfield. Some rights reserved. This work is licensed to the public under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License, and may only be distributed according to the terms of said license. To view a copy of this license, please click here.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah I read 111 pages of it, and wasn't really interested in going much further. I found it uninspired.