Friday, June 11, 2010

The Library of Dreams (The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul)

You guys, I totally read a book yesterday. By which I mean I read an entire book cover-to-cover, cracking it open on the morning commute and finishing off the last twenty-odd pages on the couch that evening while waiting for my wife to finish putting our little guy to bed.

To be fair, the book in question was not exactly Crime and Punishment or anything. It was, rather, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, which is one of the last novels completed in the entirely-too-brief lifespan of Douglas Adams. In pocket paperback size (like the edition I read) it clocks in at just a tick over 300 pages, and it is of course written in Adams’s trademark breezy style, which I would characterize as involving a propulsive plot occasionally bumping over random absurdities every so often, with as many jokes as the narrative can possibly contain.

I recently heard the word ‘joke’ defined (and apologies if you think that dissecting humor robs it of its inherent value, but I respectfully disagree, and I love dissecting why it is that some jokes work well and some work outstandingly and some fall flat; it’s not like sunsets have lost their magic and become less beautiful just because I understand atmospheric diffusion) as something which sets up one expectation and delivers on another. Most statements can only support one expectation, and deliver on it, whereas a pure non sequitor sets up an expectation and delivers a totally unrelated swerve, and jokes exist in the tricky middle-ground, where the unexpected conclusion still carries a certain sense of “shoulda seen that coming.” I bring up this particular theory of humor because I feel like it applies pretty well to the way that Adams goes about constructing individual sentences. Most people who’ve read The Hitchhiker’s Guide remember big laff-lines like “The huge golden space ship hung in the air in almost exactly the way a brick doesn't.” There are a remarkable number of sentences in his books like that, and I honestly believe that I read Douglas Adams faster than I read most authors because my brain tries to rush through every sentence to get to the punchline, and then on to the next, and the next.

Incidentally there is a scene in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul that is largely about dissecting humor, which is in itself pretty funny, which is kind of dizzying to think about.

Also, not so incidentally, the book is about (among other things) the pantheon of Norse gods and both Thor and Odin figure as prominent characters, which may prompt longtime readers of this blog to wonder what could possibly have kept me from reading it until now, considering that I discovered the Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy back in middle school. This is an excellent question.

Part of the answer probably has something to do with a vague awareness of, and general aversion to, diminishing returns. I’m not crazy about blaspheming a holy geek touchstone, and I have great sentimental fondness for The Hitchhiker’s Guide in general, but I’ve always felt that it kind of went downhill as a series. I think the original volume is A+, but Restaurant and Life are more A-, and So Long always struck me as a solid B. (And the less said about Mostly Harmless, perhaps, the better. It came out after the Dirk Gently stuff anyway so it really doesn’t factor in here.) When Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (and its sequel, Tea-Time) came out in the late 80’s, I had already read the four Hitchhiker’s books repeatedly and felt like trending evidence indicated these new books would be B or C material at best. I seem to remember them getting mixed reviews, too. And the rest of the answer has to do with the near-infinite number of other books vying for my attention which more or less crowded Adams’ lesser series off my reading list. Until now.

The fact is the Dirk Gently books are pretty good, good enough that I wish Adams had written more than two of them. Of course when the first installment is about ghosts, aliens and time travel and the second is about mythological figures and soul-ensnaring contracts, it’s fair to wonder what any subsequent episodes would have revolved around. I like to think that if he had lived to see it, Adams could have had a field day with the current obsessions with vampires and zombies, but alas, we’ll never know, until such time as unwritten hypothetical books make it into wider circulation.

I think I was well-served by waiting a couple of decades before reading both books. Maybe nothing will ever seem as magical as Hitchhiker’s Guide is when you read it for the first time, especially if you read it at as young and impressionable an age as I did and it blows your tiny mind with how different it is from everything else you’ve ever been exposed to. Maybe the unavoidable same-ness of the Hitchhiker’s sequels drags down their grades in my mind, and maybe letting them fade deep back into my mind for years and years and then encountering Adams taking on a whole new premise was the right clean slate for proper appreciation. The Dirk Gently books certainly aren’t perfect, and obviously no one’s screaming for a faithful movie adaptation like the (ultimately disappointed) throngs who clamored for Hitchhikers, but they definitely fall on the Good side of the Good/Not Good Divide.

Too much!
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency was the book I started reading earlier this week, which I finished on Wednesday morning on my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad commute. And both finishing the book and having such a wretched commute contributed to me reading an entire book on Thursday, because I finally got around to trying out the PRTC bus. I am pleased to report that the bus is very nice! It ran on the posted schedule, and (as buses go) it’s got a perfectly pleasant interior with big comfy seats, more like a luxury cruiser than a commuter. And it got me all the way from the main drag of town to the Pentagon, and back. The only downside was that, door-to-door (including driving from my house to the bus stop and taking the DoD shuttle from the Pentagon to my office) took two hours. Each way, so four hours of commuting for the day. That is less than ideal for any given day when I need to work at least eight hours and also get to daycare at a reasonable time, so I don’t know how often I’ll be taking the bus on a regular basis. But four hours is apparently plenty of time to plow through an entire mid-sized humor novel, so that’s an upside for the occasions when it’s workable. (In case you are wondering if reading an entire book on Thursday makes up for the fact that I wasted a one-way commute Wednesday evening reading nothing at all – it totally does.)

In any case, the whole bus-riding and novel-devouring adventure was fun, but also a bit sad because discovering new-to-me Adams reminded me that he’s no longer with us, and that truly is a shame. He’ll always be a pervasive influence on pop-culture, but as more and more time goes by it will probably be in rippling ways that some people have no idea originated with him. I’ll try to keep representin’ for him for as long as I can.

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