Nov 8, 2009

Monkey droppings - And Another Thing... by Eion Colfer: "Get your towel, Arthur. We have to leave."

The monkey uses his mind to fold space in upon itself, and travels the space-time continuum in search of a new entry in a classic series long thought dead. Will it be a new awakening of classic pleasures, as enjoyable as Joe Gores recently revival of Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade in Spade and Archer? Or will it fester like the innumerable entries in the 'sequel to Pride & Prejudice or anything by Jane Austen' sweepstakes?

Let's find out.

And Another Thing...
by Eoin Colfer
The storm had now definitely abated, and what thunder there was now grumbled over more distant hills, like a man saying "And another thing…" twenty minutes after admitting he's lost the argument.
- Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
I'll just start this little review with an aside: How could I possibly hate a novel that has the following conversation:
A huge anthropoid was seated uncomfortably in the interview room's office chair, its grotesque, scaled torso squirming in the confines of the small seat. tentacles dripped from its chin like fleeing slugs and hard black eyes glittered from the depths of its pulpy face.

Hillman Hunter shuffled the pages of the creature's résumé.

'So, Mr Cthulhu, is it?'

'Hmmm,' said the creature.

'Good,' said Hillman. 'A bit of the ineffable, I like that in a deity.' He winked conspiratorially. 'Still, it wouldn't be much of an in-depth interview if we couldn't get a few facts out of you, eh, Mr Cthulhu?'

Cthulhu shrugged and dreamed of days of wanton genocide.
How could I ever dislike a novel with the temerity to subject the Great Old One Cthulhu to a job interview to ascertain his possible suitability as a deity for a new colony of Earthlings? Hillman had high hopes for a more ethereal interview process, "engaging in philosophical conversations on the nature of happiness, or being wowed by awesome displays of godly power. Instead he had been forced to grind his way through a sludge of padded résumés in which demi-gods tried to make themselves sound a lot more significant than they actually were." As it turns out, Cthulhu is not at all what Hillman has in mind, being only a 'demi-god' and therefore not technically an immortal being. "It's more or less the same thing," Cthulhu protests. "I do all the same things: apparitions, impregnating, you name it. I have cards for the lounges in Asgard and Olympus. Gold cards." But as Hillman insists, "the advertisement did specify grade-A god."

Part of the genius of Douglas Adams was his ability (likely learned from the British masters of comedy Monty Python) to always make even the most fantastic of circumstances appear mundane through a morass of well-meaning bureaucracy. In Adams' worlds, the most awe-inspiring sunset could only be fully appreciated if the correct paperwork had been filed beforehand in triplicate.

Ever since Adams passed away in 2001—and in another aside, what does it say about me that the celebrity deaths that have affected me the most are invariably comedy related? Adams,
Kurt Vonnegut Jr., John Candy, John Ritter, Phil Hartman (I will never get over Phil Hartman)—ever since, there has been a dearth of his uniquely weird brand of comedic literature. Yes, Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin are cut from the same cloth, but Adams was an originator. His seminal work The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (hereafter referred to as HG2G) is a masterwork of offbeat plotting and witty writing, and Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is, to my mind, even better.

But even Adams admitted that his later sequels to HG2G were lacking. The first two were of the same calibre, more or less, but the last two (particularly Mostly Harmless) showed us an artist running a little dry. They had their moments, but they can't be considered as worthy of 'classic' status.

So a new sequel to HG2G should be dismissed out of hand as a bad idea. But there is still the idea that one should not tamper with another's work. Let's be honest, no one wants to see the glory of Adams' legacy reduced to something on the scale of the still-ongoing literary tawdriness of
V.C. Andrews, whose fairly ridiculous writings have continued for over two decades since her death.

So now, on the thirtieth anniversary of HG2G's initial publication, a new sequel has been released. Unfortunately, it was not written by Rankin, who I still feel was the best man for the job. But Irish writer Eion Colfer (who mainly writes fiction of the child/young adult variety) has pretty much pulled it off, creating a novel that honours Adams' sensibilities, yet doesn't come across as forced. Make no mistake, Colfer's sequel And Another Thing... is not up to Adams' best, but considering how wrong it could have gone, it is a fine accomplishment, and certainly better than Adams' last two sequels.

And Another Thing... takes up the plot immediately at the end point of Mostly Harmless, wherein Arthur Dent, Trillian, their daughter Random Dent, and Ford Prefect are about to be destroyed along with the Earth, or a plural reality version thereof. I'll stop here to note that a knowledge of the previous five books is essential to comprehension of And Another Thing...; I have read a few blogosphere comments complaining about this, but allow me to make the bold statement that no novel of Adams' HG2G trilogy-plus-two makes any sort of sense without full knowledge of the previous entries. If you're not up to that task, best walk away now.

After the quartet (spoiler alert!) survive the attack, they find themselves once again hooking up with Zaphod Beeblebrox (highly improbably, but if you know the series, imminently foreseeable), ex-president of the Galaxy and all-round froody guy, as well as with returning bit player (from Life, the Universe, and Everything) Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged. Together, in a plot that manages to weave in the mythical god Thor, a bizarre cult "who firmly believed in divination through the medium of semi-congealed cheese," and feral physical therapists, the group must defeat the Vogons from wiping out the last vestiges of humanity (currently living on a planet designed after the John Wayne movie The Quiet Man).

Quite obviously, Colfer has taken Adams' penchant for throwing everything into the mix to see what sticks to heart. The pages of And Another Thing... are teeming with the absurd asides that were the hallmark of HG2G's style, such as a quick explanation of the belief system of Folfangan slugs, "who judge a number's worth based on the artistic integrity of its shape. Folfangan supermarket receipts are beauteous ribbons, but their economy collapses at least once a week." Admittedly, such tangents can get tiresome, and Colfer arguably uses a few too many funny words and silly noises, but Adams was hardly above a bad pun or two himself.

Not a lot of Colfer's plot makes any sort of linear sense, but the series has always had a great deal of fun playing with notions of time and space anyway. And it's rather wonderful to be with old friends again, especially the terminally unlucky Arthur, pining for his lost love Fenchurch; as Random succinctly puts it, "I'm sure you'll bring doom down on us all presently. It's your destiny to be a cosmic Jonah." I also enjoyed Colfer's attempts to better humanize Trillian, a character Adams never fully explored and who came across initially as flighty and later as just plain unlikeable. Ford gets slighted, but there's more than enough Zaphod to make up for it. I would have liked a return of Marvin the paranoid android (surely there must have been a way), but as his ultimate exit in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish was Adams as his most touching, I can live with it (If you must spoil it for yourself, visit the Marvin Wikipedia page). If there's a real fault with Colfer's attempt, it's in his trying to cram too much in; there's too many nods to past novels, too many inside references, too many bloody characters doing too much at once.

But the HG2G series has always had a shaggy dog aspect to it, an unkempt attitude; the novels sometimes behaved like ADD sufferers on a Red Bull binge. Colfer does his best, but And Another Thing... occasionally substitutes speed of delivery for wit, and quite often is plain too goofy even for a Douglas Adams piece.

But I'm okay with that. Colfer has crafted a strong companion piece to Adams' HG2G series that continues the mythos with the same anarchic glee and intelligence. If he must continue it further (and there is always more story out there), I look forward to the ride.



James said...

I hadn't planned on picking this up -- "authorized sequels" are notoriously good at failing entirely -- but now you have me curious.

Betty said...

Thanks so much for the review. I've been really hesitant about the new Hitchhiker, but I'm feeling a lot better after reading your thoughts.

Now I'm excited to spend some more time with Ford Prefect and the gang!

Corey Redekop said...

Well, now, I hope you both like it. There is a fair amount of grumbling, so I may be in the majority. I have the feeling, however, that some of that grumbling is a kneejerk reaction rather than an actual critique.

Again, though, just my opinion, and should always be taken with a grain of salt and an appreciation of my viewpoint, i.e. I likes me the weird stuff.

Jeanne said...

Okay, I can be done grumbling and read this one now.

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