Douglas Adams was my best friend, an inimitable genius—and an emotional vampire whose last book had to be drawn out of him under duressby Michael Bywater / September 23, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
Above: all six foot five of Douglas Adams, flanked by the number he made famous
Thirty years. Gosh but the time’s flown by. Thirty years this October since the first of Douglas Adams’s five-book Hitchhiker’s Guide “trilogy” first appeared. Now, to mark the anniversary, there’s another one coming out, even though he has been dead for more than eight years. But publishing is a business, and books are product, and so this one has been written by Eoin Colfer—best known as the creator of the Artemis Fowl series—under the title And Another Thing (Michael Joseph).
It will do well. Some will buy it because they like Eoin Colfer’s other stuff. Some people will buy it because they are Hitchhiker fans and will yearn to love it and possibly succeed. Others will buy it because they are Hitchhiker fans and will yearn to really hate it and will almost certainly succeed. Some will think the idea is pure commercial genius. Some will think it venal and grotesque. Some will think it perpetuates the memory of Douglas Adams, others that it is an insult. Nobody’s opinions will make the slightest bit of difference. And nobody, in these hard times, will think a jot the less of Colfer for taking on the project. Any of us would have done the same.
Actually, some of us, to a certain extent, have done the same already. Some of us, as well as writing one of Adams’s computer games, trying but failing to write another, half-writing a third, and acting as emergency obstetrician on one of the novels, also possess a parallel manuscript of Mostly Harmless, the fifth and until now the last volume of the Hitchhiker trilogy. Probably the University of Somewhere In America would pay $$$ for the typescript, so I ought to dig it out.
Some of us sat downstairs in Islington with Douglas Adams’s editor, the saintly and incomparable Sue Freestone, typing out chapter after chapter of Mostly Harmless and sending it upstairs via email to where Douglas sat. There would be a from his computer, followed by cries of rage and alarm and “But that’s not what bloody happens,” followed by furious adversarial typing until Douglas had dismantled and reassembled it into something he liked—or, to be accurate, hated marginally less—at which point a glum silence would fall until some of us started typing again at our end to get ready for the next and gorilla noises from upstairs.
What really perplexes some of us is that the only way Adams could be persuaded to write Mostly Harmless at all was if it could be guaranteed that he could never, ever be called upon to write another Hitchhiker book ever again, not ever. He had had enough. So some of us—let me be straight with you; what I actually mean is “I”—sat down and worked out a plot which ended in the destruction of not only this Earth but of all possible Earths, as well as all possible Zaphods, Ford Prefects, Trillians and anyone else whom Douglas hadn’t mopped up in his previous search-and-destroy forays into the Hitchhiker diegesis. It wasn’t a good plot. It was unnecessarily complicated. The dénouement rested on a bad pun. But the idea was to make any further sequel impossible. And then, just to make sure, Douglas died.
A couple of years ago, I started writing a book about male friendship, partly triggered by the death of two close friends in the space of a few weeks in 2001. One was Douglas. The other was the journalist and broadcaster John Diamond.
John died slowly and, if you like, publicly, charting his cancer in the Times and, later, in his book C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too. During the drawn-out time when the cancer was killing him, I became closer to this man I’d always rather loved. Douglas, conversely, died suddenly in the gym. For a couple of years before that, we had been estranged after a silly but significant row over work. We had theoretically made up with the manly hug (in a horrible irony, at John Diamond’s last midsummer party) but hadn’t had the ritual drunken dinner called for by the rites of passage of emotionally inarticulate English men.
After these two deaths, I began to think about friendship between men. Women say we can’t do it, because of that very same emotional inarticulacy. My first starting point was: women are wrong. We may be emotionally inarticulate but that doesn’t mean we don’t have emotions, nor that we don’t communicate them. We just do it differently. Look at a group of women talking: they’re looking at each other. Look at a group of men talking: they’re all looking at something else—a car, a woman, an interesting 19th-century shaving brush.
My second starting point was that my friendships with Douglas and with John would make a fine backbone for the book, off which I could spin an entire corpus of stuff about friendship. It was a nice idea but I had a vague sense of foreboding and, after a long and rather annoying first draft, it became terribly clear that the thing had gone tits-up. I began to feel I didn’t want to be The Man Who Knew Douglas Adams. I felt both diffident and churlish about exploiting his celebrity to enhance my potential sales. But most of all, the process of writing the first draft was also a rewriting of our friendship; or, more precisely, my feelings about the man.
John Diamond was easy. Ours was a fond and uncomplicated friendship. We made each other laugh. We told each other anecdotes in an easy and (rare among men) uncompetitive way. I liked his wife and she seemed to like me, which is not always the case. Even more rarely, he liked his wife too, so the discourse of marital disharmony was never called for.
My relationship with Douglas, on the other hand, turned out to be more complex than I’d thought. We were—though he enjoyed far more success than I ever did—of the same cloth. Curiosity drove both of us. We both, slightly uneasily, straddled CP Snow’s “two cultures.”
We shared a sense of our own absurdity. When we were not together, we spoke on the telephone several times a day. He was a genius, without doubt; quite probably the most intelligent man I have ever met, and certainly the funniest.
The big question I had been asking men about their friendships is: Do you love him? And most men, to my surprise, and after their initial discomfort, have said “yes.”
In the case of Douglas, the answer is: of course I did. But it became more complicated than that. There was a side of Douglas Adams that was a terrible black hole of neediness into which I found myself drawn. When it was a question of his work going wrong, I would abandon my own to help. Partly of course for the joy of working with a genius; but partly because in some way I bought into his unspoken belief that his work was of overriding importance. There were times when I felt like killing him. There were times when his friendship was almost vampiric: at the time one felt a fiendish beguiling joy, but afterwards one was drained, diminished, inert.
Always, though, there remained his genius, which was at once comic, serious and deeply British. It’s a commonplace that to really know something you have to teach it to someone else. But the truth, as Douglas said, is that to really really know something, you have to make a joke about it.
This is the secret of the Hitchhiker books: that they smuggle great wisdom and perception under the cover of jokes. The Babel fish, the depressive robot Marvin, the maniacally polite yet malevolently incompetent products from the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, the idea that if a difficulty is big enough you become physically unable to see it because it is now Someone Else’s Problem, the Total Perspective Vortex, God’s Final Message to His Creation (“We Apologise For The Inconvenience”), Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged who, condemned to eternal life, passes the time with a scheme to insult every living creature in the universe in alphabetical order… all these are terrifyingly sane insights into the present state of humanity, disguised as what we could some day become.
In this respect (though he largely hated the genre) Adams was a science fiction author. And, like the best science fiction authors, he was a serious moralist at heart, the vanishing-point of his moral perspective being the rightly celebrated 42, the Answer to the Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. It only appears meaningless because we haven’t worked out what the question is. That single insight would be enough to assure his place in the canon.
If Adams is a great writer—and I would argue that he is—then it is because he made deeply serious points not by the reductio ad absurdum, but the reductio ad dignitatem. His characters are unaware that they are taking part in a joke. For an Adams character, the shit (which he himself has thrown) hits the fan (which he himself has turned on) but he learns nothing. Everybody in his bizarre intergalactic menagerie—except, perhaps, the dolphins—emerges untainted by insight or understanding. It’s a deployment of bathos unmatched in literature, and the result is a perfect salve for the intelligent young adult provoked beyond bearing by the frantic conspectus of “serious” post-adolescent literature.
Adams was also one of the very few authors who, when you met him, was more exciting than his books. Most authors are dodgy creatures: mole-like or wet-lipped, mumbling, shabby, twitching. Adams, conversely, was a star. Huge, imposing, affable, witty: what more could you want? No wonder the fans adored him.
People react with astonishment to, for example, Douglas’s famous “Is there an artificial God?” lecture delivered extempore at Digital Biota 2 in Cambridge in 1998. It is a tour de force—and the thing that excites most awe and envy is that it was off the cuff. But that’s what you’d expect. If your genius is to yoke the disparate and spin off into the noösphere, writing it down is a muddy trudge. You can’t write as fast as you can think. The page, in the end, is going to be a small reduction of what you want to say.
As a man, though, Douglas was also a dreadful bugger: a finger-wagging minatory roaring sod who caused everyone around him terrible trouble because, simply, he hated his work. The main outlet for his thinking was writing (which he didn’t like doing), and writing alone (which he didn’t like being). And this meant there was trouble ahead. I loved him. But our friendship was, in the end, almost all about him. And the book I had said I would write about my friendship with Douglas and the book that wanted to be written pulled me in two different directions.
We write to find out what we think. Publishers publish what they think will turn a profit. The circle cannot be squared. And, in this sense, the notion of getting another writer to do a new Hitchhiker book is another category error. The assumption is perhaps that Hitchhiker™ is a sort of brand, like James Bond or indeed PG Wodehouse. But the assumption is wrong. Wodehouse carefully excluded everything of himself from what he described as a sort of musical comedy without the music. Ian Fleming’s hero was impeccably superficial, a monument to emotional frigidity and composed of brand-loyalties and sanctioned (and thus morally emasculated) aggression. Adams’s stuff was drawn from himself. When he died they asked all his friends which of his characters we felt was the “real” Douglas, and we all gave different answers. They were all him, and if his books are more of an intellectual jeu d’esprit than a revelation of inner emotion, then so was his life.
In short, the Hitchhiker series was not branded product but one man laying himself on the line. To speak with his authentic voice would require not just literary ventriloquism but metempsychosis. There’s a recipe for Wodehouse or Fleming in a way there simply isn’t for Adams.
But does it matter? Not a damn. If readers enjoy it and think it’s as good as the real thing, then, in our poststructuralist, postmodern world, it is the real thing.