You win, Mr. Adams, you win.
I started The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with the intention of reading a chapter – just to see what the fuss is about. Shortly thereafter, I told myself, “just one more chapter.” Sooner then, I glanced at the time only to realize that I’d somehow lost several hours and nearly finished the story.
I spent the next few months postponing reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for one of two reasons and I could not determine which. Either A) I knew that I needed to budget a few hours since I could not simply read a single chapter or B) I feared finishing the story as it would leave a void in my soul.
Since I’ve already purchased The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, I’d argue Adams is damn near an addiction and he is engaging due to his narrative mastery.
We hear the term “third-person omnipotent” so often that, by the fourth grade, we don’t think about the significance of its meaning; it becomes cliché. Adams however demonstrates this omnipotence. He knows the inner workings, motivations, and ambitions of the most minute characters. A lowly construction worker will not go undeveloped and neither will a lonely bartender. It’s almost stream of consciousness, not in prose, but in the sense that you (the reader) drift from one character to another to another in each chapter.
Adams’ chapters have a tendency to start with seemingly unrelated plots that end with cliffhangers that add to the totality of the “linear” story. You learn how one bad day or troubles at home have made the situation as it is now.
It makes sense that this started out as a radio play since, by starting with different characters or seemingly unrelated segments, newcomers to the show – who hadn’t heard last week’s segment – are able to follow along with the story.
The story itself is a wild ride – capable of making señor Toad envious.You never forget that you, like Arthur Dent (the fish-out-of-water protagonist), are simply being pulled along on this ride. More often than not, Arthur learns about the world because he’s forced to. He can be shot OR listen to the dreaded Vogon poetry; he can be killed OR follow an old man into a scooter to learn about how mice are the supreme beings on the planet.
A hitchhiker is what you are, accepting others’ destinations and adapting them to your own. Arthur accepts this. He complains briefly, but is not whiny for long – he accepts whatever comes his way because there is nothing to return to. Whatever happens, happens. So, Arthur, like us readers, becomes familiar with Adams’ style, which – if I may quote the Tiny Toons – is to “expect the unexpected.” So much is happening beyond our knowledge, that when something seemingly impossible happens, the narrator returns with some casual comment that almost seems to say, “Well of course? You didn’t think in the entire universe, one of those didn’t exist, did you?”
This is also what makes Adams so witty and such a cerebral read. His self-awareness is relentless. Perhaps meta-ironically, Adams – known atheist – is his own God with his own Bible; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy being a novel within the novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Guide sees frequent additions and amendments to its many editions, but if we accept what that means in the actual novel, then the characters are following an improvised narrative that is self-defensive. Adams makes inconsistency a mark of continuity – accidents on purpose.
It’s also why genocide and the death of billions can go by with such glib. This is the UNIVERSE we’re talking about here, and there are much larger things at stake than the Earth and our existence, hence why we can be wiped out with no glorious purpose, but for an intergalactic highway.
The one entry for the Earth was “Harmless” anyway, and it was only after a new edition did they publish, “Mostly harmless.” When a Babel Fish gets a larger entry in the Guide than our existence, it puts things in perspective. Anything that happens to these characters does not seem like a stroke of luck even when the odds are against them. Because the universe is so vast and so much is happening all at once, when characters are saved in the nick of time, we accept it and move on because it would have to happen to someone and why not to multiple people across infinity?
A wise man (Huston Smith) once said, “it would be extraordinarily conceited to believe that we [humans] are the most intelligent beings in the universe.” Adams is aware of this. It does not matter how intelligent you are by comparison to humans because chances are it’s child’s play for the larger scope. It’s this acknowledgement that makes Adams so clever and fun to read as well for he truly is a humbling author; he is not stuck-up and does not condescend, if anything, Douglas Adams is fearless.
When brilliant minds get together and construct a machine that will bring the answer to life, the universe and everything in well over a million years… only to be underwhelmed by an anticlimactic answer, it has quite the humbling effect.
We’re all looking for answers, but cannot even begin to fathom the question. If hitchhiking is any indication, it’s about the journey, not the destination or, as Mr. Adams puts it, if we knew what to ask, we wouldn’t need the answer.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
By: Douglas Adams
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