Tales of Despair: Mostly Hopeless

Douglas Adams is dead.

As it happens, he’s been dead for quite some time, given that he suffered a fatal heart attack after working out almost exactly eleven years ago, which is a shame. Let this be a lesson to you, though, and never, ever do any exercise of any kind, or you’ll probably die too.

Douglas Adams left us with a veritable treasure trove of magic, a whole lot of unfinished work, and a perfectly unsatisfying ending to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series of novels. Like most artists, Douglas suffered from spells of depression and despair, a trait he shared with his long-time (and still very much alive) friend, Stephen Fry. This is something that creeps into his writing, inevitably, and it’s fascinating to consider the emotional turmoil in his life through the lens of the Hitchhiker series.

I’ve always found the connection between creativity and despair to be fascinating. Finnish rock band HIM (His Infernal Majesty), throughout their career, have released album after album of music almost entirely about the pain and heartache of failed love, except for a large gap of time between 2003 and 2005, when the lead singer finally found himself in a stable relationship. Funny how the creativity there stopped for a bit.

Yet beyond even this, the connection between art and depression seems all the stronger in the realm of comedy. Countless comedic artists have used the laughter of their medium to help survive against the inside torture of personal despair. Woody Allen, Jim Carrey, Spike Milligan, David Walliams…the list goes on. Often, their wittiest and best-loved work comes from the darkest times in their lives. Occasionally, though, the unhappiness leaks through and stains their work in a way that transcends the humor, and bares the sadness in their soul. This is not black humor – this is depression.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy began life as a radio comedy in the late seventies, ending up translated into a plethora of mediums, including film and TV, but perhaps best known as a series of novels. The five books in the series are The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979), The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980), Life, the Universe and Everything (1982), So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish (1984), and Mostly Harmless (1992).

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the original tale in the world of Arthur Dent, is a voyage of essentially pure silliness, introducing us to such wizardry as the infinite improbability drive, the person who designed Norway’s fjords, Deep Thought, and of course, 42. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, published only a year later, essentially continued this same plot line, and in fact the titular restaurant features only briefly at the beginning of the story, before meandering away to discover the universe is run by a single man in a shack in the rain, and abandoning Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect on prehistoric earth.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is possibly the beginning of a downward slide for the author and the tale; despite the wit and humor throughout, the themes of abandonment and confusion lend the story a sense of frustration – a feeling that despite all effort and will, the world will never quite make sense. The fact that the book ends with what appears to be Arthur’s resignation to his fate, rather than a desire to escape it, is one of the first signs we get in the ongoing tale that things may just not quite pan out for our characters.

The third tale, Life, The Universe and Everything, seems to pick itself up out of the lethargy at the end of Restaurant, involving quite of bit of intrigue and action, and ultimately ending with Arthur saving the entirely of the universe from ultimate destruction.  The fourth tale, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, brings the story out of the haze that had surrounded the previous two books, and allows Arthur to actually find the love of his life, in the form of Fenchurch (rather amusingly named after the train station in which she was conceived). The whole book, from start to finish, feels imbued with a feeling of warmth and hope, from the fact that earth was replaced by dolphins to the touching and bittersweet ending in which Marvin, decrepit and ancient, is able to see god’s last message to creation just before he finally expires. It perhaps no coincidence that the publication of this book arrived at the same time that Douglas met and fell in love with his future wife, whom he would be with until his death, seventeen years later.

Then we have a break. Eight long years before the next Hitchhiker book. And oh my, what a tragic difference. Mostly Harmless opens with Arthur having lost Fenchurch, and the entire tale from there on follows his desperate and impossible search throughout time and multiple universes to find her again. The story is filled with despair, doom and tragedy, to such an extent that the sense of loss begins to overpower the humor.

In the years since the publication of So Long, Douglas endured a drawn-out and troubled relationship with his wife-to-be, including several separations, which even resulted at one point in their engagement being called off. Ultimately, the two rejoined and were married in late 1991, but perhaps the damage was done, and the material for Mostly Harmless already planted firmly in Douglas’ head.

In the end, we are treated to a lost love, a plot to destroy earth in every possible universe, an unwanted child and insolent teenager, and even an unintended assassination attempt. Even the one, brief moment of happiness we are allowed, when Arthur takes up as a sandwich-maker on a small, backwater planet, is torn apart when Random arrives, followed not long after by Ford Prefect. In the end – right at the very end – earth is destroyed, taking along with it every main character in the series. And this is how it ends – not with a bang, but a silent whisper into the night.

Every time I read the series (I am lucky enough to have all five stories combined into one giant anthology, and I find I have to read them from start to finish), I am left with the unnerving sensation that I am surreptitiously paralleling Douglas’ own personal traumas, and being led down the path to despair whether I would go there or not. Mostly Harmless does not relent, and in this the seams begin to show. The book’s humor lies entirely in the writing, while the plot itself is allowed to descend into ever-greater bleakness.

It was for a long time assumed Douglas intended to, at some point, write a sixth installment (it turns out a sixth was written, though not by him, and so far I haven’t read it). Even without any further knowledge of what Douglas would have intended for this new tale, it is interesting to contemplate the very fact that he had been planning it; almost by definition, resurrecting the destroyed characters and throwing into yet a further adventure would have felt like a return to hope – we haven’t abandoned them entirely.

As it is, however, we are left sad, miserable and unsatisfied, and in relation to those other famous tales of despair in the world, this makes it almost the very definition of a tragedy. In some ways, I am reminded of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Pathétique, with its manic third movement and utterly desolate fourth movement; so the Hitchhiker series feels in the realm of literature.

And in the end, of course, it should have been no other way.

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