Posted In: blog,reviews
Among my absolute favorite books in existence are the titles that comprise The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, by Douglas Adams. I first read these novels as an impressionable young grade schooler, back when vast tracts of my personality had yet to be determined. I don’t believe I had a terribly strong or independent sense of humor at the time, and I relied in good part on others to indicate to me the things that were funny. My older brother indicated to me that the Hitchhiker’s Guide was, in fact, quite funny. So I read it.
In this view, I guess you could say that my sense of humor is in part defined by the Hitchhiker’s Guide—and if my brother had suggested Twain instead, maybe this webcomic would feature a couple fewer time traveling teddy bears and couple more mischievous young rapscallions traveling down the Mississippi.
Anyway, the point is that I really like the Hitchhiker’s Guide. But Douglas Adams wrote other things, too. One of these other things was a novel called Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, a book I only just recently got around to reading. And since I couldn’t think of anything better to do for my post this week, I’ve decided to write a review of this book. This 22-year-old book.1 So here goes:
In general I quite liked it. Adams is an astoundingly funny guy, but it’s easy to forget that he’s also a first-rate writer. Dirk Gently feels much more cohesive and put-together than Hitchhiker’s Guide, which, owing to its origins as a radio serial, always felt like a pastiche of funny bits duct-taped together with a story that was really just an excuse to keep the absurdity rolling. (The Guide always reminded me of the Monty Python movies in that way.) Gently, on the other hand, feels very much like a mystery novel, where the plot is more or less inseparable from what’s going on at any instant. Or rather, keeping in spirit with the novel’s title, the book feels very much like a unified whole, each part interconnecting with the other in multifarious and often unexpected ways.
The flip-side to this strong sense of unity is that the book doesn’t seem quite as funny as Hitchhiker’s Guide. Don’t get me wrong—it’s still laugh-out-loud funny2—just not as laugh-out-loud funny as one might expect. Not necessarily a bad thing, but for someone approaching the book as a Hitchhiker’s Guide fan (and unfortunately, the comparisons do seem inevitable) it could be a slight let-down. The Guide is wholly remarkable for the way you can open it to a random chapter, read, and be enriched by the experience; I used to keep a copy on my nightstand so I could contemplate a different passage every night (like a bible, but awesomer). But whereas whole chapters of the Guide are dedicated to the deep exploration of amusing minutiae, apparent non sequiturs, and the convoluted history of the galaxy, the jokes in Dirk Gentle feel smaller, relegated to smart turns of phrase tucked into conversations and Adams’ characteristically dry observations on the absurdities of everyday life.
That all said, Dirk Gently is still incredibly funny and you shouldn’t not read it because you expect it won’t be3. That would be wrong. The book’s just different, that’s all.
As a mystery novel, it blessedly gives the reader a little space to come to her own realizations. It’s mostly free of the sort of Holmesian exposition that mercilessly bludgeons you, the reader, with the fact that, gosh golly gee, isn’t this detective so ridiculously clever, and gee whiz, isn’t every other person involved (implication: YOU, the reader) a big doofus in comparison? (Even though the whole solution to the puzzle hinged upon some obscure detail, some iota of esoteric arcana that couldn’t have possibly been deduced by any actual person? Let’s just gloss over that point, why don’t we?) Whenever Gently is one step ahead, at least you still have a sense of where the hell he’s at. By narrating freely between several concurrently unraveling stories, Adams gradually builds for you the kind of holistic narrative that Gently is obviously building in his own mind; therefore, you tend to feel in stride with the goofy detective than hopelessly behind him. Reading the novel, I felt remarkably on top of things. I also felt like I was putting things together on my own, not being spoon-fed the information. Like a real detective! How exciting!
The only downside was that sometimes I found myself screaming at the characters: “IT’S SO SIMPLE! HOW CAN YOU NOT SEEEEEE?!?” This must be the inner monologue constantly suppressed by every fictional super-detective ever conceived. Perhaps it’s what drove Holmes to the cocaine. Watson was a pretty dense dude, after all.
Not everything’s amazing. I might complain that the characters all seem a bit flat and unbelievable. The author’s voice is hella strong and tends to drown out the characters’ individual voices. It reminded me of watching a Kevin Smith movie: the whole time, a tiny corner of my mind kept shrieking, “NO! NOBODY TALKS LIKE THAT. AUUAAGAGUAHGAHUGAH.” In retrospect, this was also an issue with Hitchhiker’s Guide—but there the offense was made slightly less egregious in the context of an unapologetically outlandish plot. Not to say that Dirk Gently‘s plot isn’t outlandish, but it at least takes place mostly on earth, mostly in the present, and mostly concerning humans. Mostly.
I might also say that this is the sort of book that demands a reread. I might say, but I haven’t yet reread the book, so I won’t. (To be fair, I did quite a bit of paging-back the first time through.)
As a final word of warning—if you do decide to read the book, you may find parts of it difficult to piece together without being familiar with (of all things!) the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge; specifically, the poems Kubla Kahn and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. If you haven’t read them, a quick perusal of the relevant Wikipedia articles should put you on solid footing. (But a word to the wise: be wary of trivia sections, for spoilers abound! And while you’re examining Wikipedia, it goes without saying that the Dirk Gently article is strictly off-limits. I know it’s obvious, but if you’re like me and get an idiotic thrill from looking up books as you’re reading them—don’t even try with this one. The spoilers start on the second sentence of the plot summary.)
1 Chronillogical: it’s breaking news…. sometime.
2 “LAUGH OUT LOUD FUNNY! … A REAL KNEE-SLAPPER!” — The San Diego Sun-Chronicle “… FIRST RATE COMEDY FROM THE AUTHOR WHO BROUGHT US THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY …” — The Kansas City Star-Tribune “I COULDN’T PUT IT DOWN … DOUGLAS ADAMS IS A SEARING WIT IN A WORLD OF DULL TURNIPS!” — The Toronto Maple Leafer
3 Woo! Triple-negative!