Life, the Universe and Everything (1982) Review

life-the-universe-and-everything

In my previous review, I mentioned how bleak the ending was to The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and how I raced to begin this novel if only to learn the fate of Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect who seemed to be stranded indefinitely on a prehistoric Earth.

Fittingly, the beginning to Life, the Universe and Everything was no less bleak. Arthur has been stranded on Earth for five years and been alone for much of it since Ford had parted ways from him years prior. His only visit in a great long while was from a space-going man who dedicated himself to insulting everyone in the universe in alphabetical order; he tells Arthur Dent he’s a jerk and flies off. Bleak. Bleak. Bleak.

Arthur resolves to go mad and somewhere you can hear Simon and Garfunkel in the background “bleaker street…”

Then however, Ford reappears and tells Arthur that they must grab ahold of an interdimensional couch that will take them anywhere but here (or now). Did Arthur go mad or is this the universe zarking with them? Who’s to say? Who cares?!

The chase for an interdimensional couch is one of the most riveting sequences I’ve ever read. It got my blood pumping because catching it meant the adventure was not over. Only Adams could write a scene of a man in a dressing gown – rabbit bone in beard – chasing a floating couch with his ally, bruised with bloodied elbows from attempting flight, in such a tirelessly humorous way that you cannot resist turning the pages.

Unlike the previous two installments (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe [Milliways]), this one (Life, the Universe and Everything) does not fly by which I found to be incredibly odd, since (so far) it’s actually the shortest (page-wise) of the three.

Don’t get me wrong, this book is just as funny as the others and by no means a chore to read. I may even be so bold to say it has a bigger payoff than the others as well, but it felt much longer than the others (which is doubly odd since I read this one faster than the other two combined).

I think the reason for this is actually because Douglas Adams stays focused on our main characters the entire time. You never leave Arthur Dent’s side (except briefly to visit Zaphod Beeblebrox, who is promptly incapacitated for the majority of the novel).

Adams’ radio play style carried the first two novels where you’d begin with someone or something unrelated and move it into the plot. This novel does not do that; strangely, despite the time travel, space travel, interdimensional travel, teleportation, and all-encompassing expanse of life, the universe and everything, this is the most linear novel… and it’s quite refreshing.

Much of the humor in Hitchhiker’s centers on the ride-along narrative; the plot is full of happy accidents that save our heroes from near death. Or as Arthur puts it, the universe is simply “zarking” with them a lot.

In Milliways’ the humor comes from agenda-less characters who, when they find the motivation to act on something, no matter how frivolous, will do so with obsessive commitment.

Life, the Universe and Everything however is an entirely different beast. Every aspect of the plot is revisited, every standalone chapter is a setup for later, every character gets their moment of heroism (except maybe Ford whose only motivation is to drink a lot and dance with girls – but is that not heroic in its own way?).

Rather than hitchhiking from place to place with agenda-less protagonists, the characters have a clear goal and destination. In many ways it follows a traditional quest storyline, collecting several archaic objects and saving the universe. At one point, Arthur even rescues a damsel – or what he assumes is a damsel – in distress.

On a personal note, what I appreciate most is that, despite the finality of this novel (again, intended conclusion), Adams does what many storytellers fail to do which is narrate what happens when the dust settles. After the climax, when the world is no longer in need of saving, what do the characters do?

For Zaphod Beeblebrox, who’s unaware that the universe is in danger, he’s already experiencing settled dust. Beeblebrox thinks to himself, “I can do anything…” but he doesn’t know what to do so he drinks himself into a stupor. He rises to the occasion when his friends are in danger, but you’re under the distinct impression that he needs a purpose-driven life. For Arthur it’s the same way.

Arthur is finally told where to find the question to the answer of life, the universe and everything and passes on it. For Arthur who has, more or less, been adrift in the ocean of the galaxy, to not find the meaning of Everything is perhaps the most poignant message of the trilogy.

He comes to this conclusion after Prak – a man who spoke of nothing but the truth in a literal sense – tells Arthur a story of messenger whose people were caught in the middle of two warring countries. The messenger continues to visit the leaders of the opposing countries and ask why they’re warring, killing his own people in the process. Each time the leaders explain their heart-felt reasoning and the messenger leaves feeling resolved, but by the time he reaches his people he’s forgotten what the actual point was.

I find this to be the answer to life, the universe and everything:
Maybe there is no point, but it’s better to live believing there is one.

Although I’m excited where the next novel takes me, this is a stalwart ending and I’m happy if this was/is the conclusion.

Life, the Universe and Everything (1982)
By: Douglas Adams
Pan Books

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2 comments

  1. J.K. Post authorReply

    I need to read these. That is one of the best summations of the meaning of life I’ve read. Especially with my view on religion and everything, it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not as long as the belief does something for you. And something that inspires and motivates you, not something stupid like not eating shellfish or the gays will ruin our economy.

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