I find Douglas Adams’ comic writing deeply melancholic to the point of being depressing, and Terry Pratchett’s quite the opposite. I suspect the difference has to do with the sense of underlying logic in Pratchett, versus the sense of arbitrariness and absurdity in Adams. I get the same sense of arbitrariness in what I’ve looked at of Sharpe, and I didn’t like it at all. Same with (closer to home) Robert Rankin.
Jasper Fforde, that’s what I say. But I’ll get back to that.
I tend to agree with Ken about Adams & Pratchett. The thing about Hitchhiker is that it makes perfect sense as a Cambridge revue sketch, i.e. something whose writer is trying to flatter and stay one jump ahead of a clever but cynical audience: hence the wordiness, the displays of erudition and worldly-wisdom, the dash for the next gag. But I think the darkness which is overpowering by the time of Mostly Harmless was always there, and I suspect that it’s related. One of the few snatches of HH I caught on the radio, back in 1978, was the digression about the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Complaints division (“the only part of the Corporation to show a consistent profit in recent years”) and how its giant illuminated motto – “Share and Enjoy” – unfortunately now appeared to read “Go stick your head in a pig”. The explanation was followed by a hideously atonal vocodered jingle, beginning “Share and enjoy” and ending (of course) “Go stick your head in a pig”. A basically rather grim idea is taken further and further, with an odd kind of doggedness, culminating in a deliberately unpleasant jingle – which itself goes on just a bit too long to be amusing. It’s strange and rather gruelling stuff; I remember thinking at the time that this wasn’t exactly light entertainment. (You can hear for yourself. Share and enjoy!) And that’s not to mention Slartibartfast’s melancholia –
Slartibartfast: Perhaps I’m old and tired, but I think that the chances of finding out what’s actually going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say, “Hang the sense of it,” and keep yourself busy. I’d much rather be happy than right any day.
Arthur Dent: And are you?
Slartibartfast: Ah, no… Well, that’s where it all falls down, of course.
or the appallingly dark comedy of the basic setup: the Earth has been destroyed and nobody cares. If you were going to take it really seriously, you could say that Marvin’s function is to make Arthur’s predicament even more desperate, by effectively blocking off the escape route of outright depression. Arthur is a thin character – one of those Boring Ordinary People who the Pythons kept returning to, upwardly-mobile Oxbridge snobs that they were – stuck in a mindbendingly ‘thick’ situation, and doomed to make jokes about it. Which nobody hears.
Adams: dark. I think the darkness and the “sense of arbitrariness and absurdity” Ken refers to may go back to the same root. I wonder if, for Adams when he was writing Hitchhiker, the cynicism and erudition and wordplay was basically all there was – not in the sense that it was all he could do (we should all be so limited), but in the sense that he didn’t believe there was anything else that mattered. Bear in mind that he was only in his mid-20s when Hitchhiker went out – still very much in the “after Cambridge” stage. Being erudite and good with words is quite a big deal if you’re a student, and can have real rewards. Get to Oxford or Cambridge, and it’s easy to form a world-view which basically says that clever people get privilege, very clever people get lots of privilege and really clever people run the world. Coming down from Cambridge (in more ways than one), to discover that boring ordinary people in boring ordinary jobs were doing quite nicely thankyou, while clever people like oneself were scraping around to make ends meet… well, I found it a bit of a shock myself, and I wasn’t even a star at Cambridge. The world of Megadodo Publications and the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation is a world where knowledge and intelligence confer power, but only on people who are willing to misuse them. To some extent that mentality seems to have stuck, for Adams – there’s a cold wind blowing through a lot of his later work, from Mostly Harmless to The long dark tea-time of the soul: a mood not just of “this is all there is” but of “yes, this is all there is, you don’t have to keep asking”. You can see how he would have taken to rationalism and Darwinism – which, to be fair, do seem to have given him a sense that there was a there there, and consequently cheered him up a bit. (This theory doesn’t really account for Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, one of his best works & also one of the most upbeat. Maybe he should have written more about music.)
It follows from all of the above that Adams was never a world-builder; I think he felt that the world we had was an absurd and rather shoddy mess which didn’t bear too much investigating, and any other worlds we visited would almost certainly be no better. He makes an odd sort of mirror image to C.S. Lewis in this respect. Narnia doesn’t hang together for five minutes – did Talking Foxes eat Talking Mice, and if not what did they live on? could Talking and non-Talking animals interbreed, and if so what would the offspring be? where are the female Marsh-wiggles, or the female Centaurs? and what the hell is Father Christmas doing there? But it doesn’t matter (and be fair, when you’re reading the story it doesn’t matter) because Lewis wasn’t greatly concerned about how this world hung together either. (He didn’t much care where the female Humans were for most of his life.) The only world that made sense, for Lewis, was Aslan’s Country; Earth or Narnia, they were all dim and muddled reflections, seen δι εσοπτρου εν αινιγματι. But the senseless and disordered worlds he imagined were still basically, ultimately, good and trustworthy places, because they were underwritten by that great unknowable original – just as Adams’s (a) weren’t and (b) weren’t.
Pratchett – who started out as a working journalist – took a very different approach when he started writing the Discworld series, and in retrospect it’s rather an extraordinary one. Pratchett designed a world which feels from the outset as if it ought to hang together (there’s work and crime and government and sex), but couldn’t possibly work: in the first few books there are huge white spaces in the mental map of Discworld, quite openly labelled “and then a miracle happens”. It’s a fantasy, after all; it’s a world where magic happens all the time. One of the remarkable features of the later books has been the way those white spaces have been progressively filled in: magic itself has been less and less of a deus ex machina and more of a source of power, like steam. Pratchett has a real sense of people living in society, and of society as an essentially orderly and comprehensible human creation – even if (as he suggests sometimes) the order rests ultimately on random violence, and comprehending society would involve learning things you’d rather forget. I’ve got a lot of time for the argument, advanced in Interzone at around the time of Guards! Guards!, that Pratchett is a writer of comedy in the fullest and most philosophical sense – comedy as a place where nobody gets hurt (except bad people) and the estranged lovers end up together again (usually), but where some real and serious ideas get played with along the way.
I’m interested in Ken’s other comments. I don’t like Tom Sharpe as a writer, any more than I like Howard Jacobson – Sharpe has a similar sort of thumping smugness, although he carries it off more lightly – but I’m intrigued by the comment about Robert Rankin. I’ve never read any of his stuff (although I do remember when it was actually happening) and I’d be interested to know where other people locate him on the Pratchett-Adams continuum (or should that be Lewis-Pratchett-Adams?).
Another couple of names for you. I like Malcolm Pryce. I’m not convinced his world hangs together, but it feels more solid than a simple burlesque; it’s authentically Welsh enough to seem believable (or maybe it’s just that I’m Welsh enough to find it believable). I’ve got an absolute tin ear for Jasper Fforde, though, and here again it’s something to do with arbitrariness: he really does seem to be making things up as he goes along, without even addressing the question of whether it hangs together. Time travel I like; the ‘banana’ scene in The Eyre Affair is tremendous. People entering books I like, and have done since Woody Allen came up with the idea in “The Kugelmass Episode”. But time travel and people entering books and an alt-historical authoritarian government and a literary popular culture… too much. Most of the way through The Eyre Affair I was convinced that we were going to find out how this world connected to, or diverged from, our own – that Fforde was going to reveal the Point of Departure – but it wasn’t to be. Maybe my expectations were the problem – maybe I should have relaxed and enjoyed the firework display – but it didn’t work for me.
What (and who) am I missing?