Monday, 23 November 2009
Eoin Colfer, And Another Thing ... (2009)
The first thing to say about this Hitch-Hiker's continuation is worth stressing: it could have been a mangled, hideous car-crash of a novel. It is not a mangled, hideous car-crash of a novel. Colfer, a writer whose Artemis Fowl books (or such of them as I had read) had left me making a noise somewhere between 'meh' and 'ugh', does a fair-to-middling job with this particular officially-sanctioned and eagerly-awaited cash-in-come-homage. Really, the resulting book is much more fair-to-middling than I had expected it to be.
It's not all good, mind. At nearly 350 pages it is about 100 pages too long. There's too much plotting; the Guide sections aren't particularly well done, and, overall, Colfer's comic prose is more diffuse and prolix than was Adams's. This is not to say that the writing is unfunny, and some kudos deserves to be wafted Colfer's way for his decision not simply to write Adamsesque pastiche. Although, at the same time, I'm not sure if Douglas Adams pastiche would be so easy to pull off.
Adams was, at his best, a very funny writer in a very distinctive, hard-to-ape way: he put an effectively perfect-pitch ear for comic prose at the service of some genuinely clever and thought-provoking ideas. Colfer is rattling around in Adams' cosmos, aiming for laughs but never managing the profundity; and without the profundity the laughs are Standard Issue; and the rattling around, with concomitant bouncing off the walls, leaves the Adams cosmos saggy, a bit bulgy and flaccid. And here's the thing: the main thrust of the orginal Hitch-Hiker's was never the world-building; it was the little jolts and leaps of comprehension: it was the ah-ha! and the ha-ha! They are terribly terribly valuable and wonderful things, those; and Adams understood (this is what makes him so significant a figure) that the little jolts and leaps of conceptual or perspectival comprehension that are the trademark of SF -- the epiphany, the mind-expansion, the sense of wonder -- and little jolts and leaps of comedic comprehension that make humour work (that make us laugh) are actually versions of one another. 'He only had the two arms then, and the one head, and he called himself Phil, but ...' is funny because it jolts our established comprehension of what the character Zaphod looks like (my God, he has more than two arms and more than one head!) and sfnal because it opens a chink into a world in which three-armed, two-headed creatures are ordinary. 42 is a nicely paced gag and a slyly meta commentary about the logic of pondering the meaning of things. Which is to say: 42 is both funny and deep; the total perspective vortex is both funny and deep; the infinite improbability drive is both funny and deep.
There's nothing like that in And Another Thing... Instead, Adams's original punchlines are treated straight-faced, as it were, as premises for building the world. That's rather deadening, really.
I could be more nitpicky, but such pickynittishness probably rather misses the point of the exercise. So I might kvetch that Colfer's characters don't really taste right, precisely, upon my metaphorical reader's tongue -- Arthur too much the Cosmic Loser, with a great deal of text devoted to his bad luck; Zaphod too moronic -- and too much time is devoted to lesser Adams creations (like the tedious Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged). Then again, I might concede that there are some pretty funny moments here, both on the level of content and of style. But the bottom line is this: the wonderfully sour and gloomy fifth novel has become the launchpad for a round of here-we-go-again, when in fact it was set up, by Adams himself, as a launchpad into a cliff-face and annihilation. But I suppose you can't have everything. (Co)Lfer? Don't talk to me about (Co)Lfer.