Favourite re-reads: Mostly Harmless (1992) by Douglas Adams.

[Warning, loads of spoilers]

Mostly HarmlessI was excited. I hadn’t read it for more than 20 years. I’d picked it up and took it work along with the book I was just about to finish. Lunchtime reading and all that. Huge fan of the original, and the radio series and the TV show. Wasn’t bothered about the film. I think I’ve read H2G2 more than half a dozen times. The same for Restaurant… I remember being a tad disappointed when I originally read Mostly Harmless, although I can’t recall why. Memories are strange beasts. Have you heard of confabulation? It is roughly the disturbance or memory; the production of fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted memories. I don’t trust my memory. Especially when it comes to fiction, as I’ve read so much. And lunch. I don’t recall what I’ve had for lunch. Well, sometimes.

The reading was inspired by a Twitter conversation with author Andy Miller (no, not that one, the author of The Year of Reading Dangerously). To be honest, despite regularly quoting H2G2 and having it in my conscious in various forms most of my life, I’d not really thought about re-reading Mostly Harmless, not even when And Another Thing by Eoin Colfer came out in 2008. Now, I was so looking forward to proving my memory wrong, with Mostly Harmless. I’d briefly considered reading the whole trilogy in five parts again, but time is a pressing and there are so many books to read, so I stuck with part five. Picking it up felt like visiting an old friend. I hadn’t actually read this particular edition, part of a box set. I cracked on.

The opening pages gleefully hint at what’s to come. The first chapter of the book really feels like Adams. It is filled with wit and verve and imagination and Adams’ unique take on the universe. And then we’re in New York with Tricia McMillan. Trillian. She’s a TV presenter. What? The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy hadn’t even happened. Is this a cop out? A re-boot in modern parlance? Is Adams playing with me? Of course he is. This is an alternative history. Alternative universes. And so the plot moves on. Arthur is bumming about the universe looking for meaning. Ford is bumming around the offices of the Guide, looking for meaning – specifically why there’s been a take-over and why he keeps finding himself jumping out of windows? No Zaphod or Marvin or Fenchurch even. Tricia vanishes from the story for most of the middle chunk of the book, frustratingly. When she reappears, it’s with her daughter, Random. Arthur’s exploits in space while looking for somewhere to call home prove illuminating. Then it all comes together at the climax, proving Adams has indeed been playing with the reader.

After the initial buzz of picking up this relatively short novel (2002 Picador print with 230 pages) I wasn’t drawn back to it. I can read a lot. Today, in my lunch hour I read almost 65 pages of a novel. Recently, I read the 300ish pages of Matt Haig’s The Humans in a day and a half. This should have been a quick and easy and fun read, but it wasn’t drawing me in. I wasn’t yearning to pick it up again once I had to put it down (you know, for sleeping and working and going to the shops). I wasn’t finding excuses to make time to read. This lack of urgency, I found, was more disappointing than the book.

I tried to work out why it wasn’t pulling me in. Let’s look at the evidence. There’s nothing wrong with Adams’ writing, clearly. Most of the characters from previous instalments are present and correct. The usual wit and sly observation are scattered throughout. There’s a robot called Colin who is always happy. There’s navel gazing and universe gazing. Adams presents his view of the universe and his understanding of quantum physics in Mostly Harmless. I’m a trained scientist and I read books about cosmology and physics for fun (well, not all the time, I’m not mad). Yet the gravitational pull was missing. It hit me on page 172. Something happens that was glaringly obvious throughout. Ford finds Arthur. On page 175, there’s this exchange:

“She hit me on the head with the rock again.”

“I think I can confirm that that was my daughter.”

“Sweet kid.”

“You have to get to know her,” said Arthur.

“She eases up, does she?”

“No,” said Arthur, “but you get a better sense of when to duck.”

It is, for me at least, impossible not to do at least two things reading this: hear this exchange in the voices of Simon Jones and Geoffrey McGivern, and laugh. That is why Mostly Harmless is merely a good book and not a great one. The main characters of Arthur, Ford and Trillian, barely interact. They are rarely on the same page. Much of the story is told in their expositional isolation. Everything else that Adams does is great. His perception of the universe and how he works it into fiction is unique. But in keeping these three apart for most of the novel means they can’t interact and explore and bounce off each other. We’re exploring the universe through different sensations; touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing and the rest, but unless we put them together, they don’t work as well. Reading Mostly Harmless is like eating a good curry blindfold or watching Nirvana with the sound turned down.

All the ingredients are in Mostly Harmless. The humour is classic and could be found in any of the books. Although not as quotable as the first two in the series, there are some great moments. My favourite being the explanation of near speed of light travel and the aging of a twin (p135). The sub-text is clear. This is an explanation, in Adam’s eyes, of the universe and human’s place in it. Arthur explains as much to Random. The characters remain, and although I missed the voice of the Guide, I didn’t miss Zaphod so much.

My memory didn’t lie. It remembered Tricia in New York, and the Perfectly Normal Beasts, and Colin the happy robot. I remembered the Guide as a bird and the reappearance of the Vogons. I remembered much of Mostly Harmless. I remain disappointed. The disappointment is not with Adams and his brilliance – his insightful, witty, humanist viewpoint with real characters as confused about their place in the world as I am – but with my own high expectations not met by Adams keeping the characters apart. Although I’m glad I re-read it and was reacquainted with Adams’ universe once more.


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