BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Salmon of Doubt’ by Douglas Adams (2002)

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Poor Douglas Adams. Poor, poor, poor Douglas Adams. I mean ‘Poor’ in the sense of lamentations, not literally: the man was amazingly filthy-stinking rich for what little actual work he did. The fact that he, himself, would admit his financial gains far outstripped any justification from his actual talent is one of the many things that I like about the guy. There are many things to like about Douglas Adams, not the least of which was that he was a genuinely funny man. On the other hand, for those of us who liked him, there are some things not to like about him. The most immediate of these would be the fact that he’s stupidly dead at only 49 years old. At an age when most writers are hitting their personal stride and peak years, he dropped dead of a sudden and unforeseen heart attack while at the gym.

Another thing to dislike about him is that he seems to have really lost any interest in writing.

I say this based on the fact that I have read “his” last “Book:” The Salmon of Doubt. You’ll notice some “Quotes” in that last sentence. ‘Doubt’ was touted as Adam’s last book, and it both is and isn’t. He wrote virtually every word in the book, but he didn’t compile it, nor did he intend for it to be compiled, nor is it, really, a ‘book’ per se, unless one looks at it in the absolute strictest definition of the word. (Cover, binding, pages = book. And you will please forgive my run on sentences. I’ve just been reading Douglas Adams, and his style is infectious.) Conceptually, it’s not a book. It’s a grab bag of Adams paraphernalia, the literary equivalent of an album of B-sides and studio outtakes. There’s a couple dozen interviews, some essays, a couple speeches – all of which are pretty funny and intellectual and give us a window into the man – a couple short stories (Neither of which is very good), and a lengthy fragment of his unfinished novel, ‘The Salmon of Doubt.’

In the end, I was disappointed. Actually, I was disappointed in the beginning, moderately bored through the middle, and horribly disappointed by the end. It’s not that this is a bad book (or anthology or compendium or what have you), it’s just that in the end, it drives home the fact that Elvis has left the building, and isn’t coming back. Let’s use a musical metaphor, shall we? If Douglas Adams was the Beatles, then Mostly Harmless was Abbey Road. His untimely death – like that of John Lennon – means we can never hope for a ‘reunion’. Reading ‘Salmon of Doubt’, then, is like listening to scratchy bootleg four-track recordings of Ringo Starr singing “No Pakistani:” it’s a touching, yet sad attempt to get one last fix out of something we once held dear.

Which is fine and good and sad, and I’ve got no problem with it. I’m glad someone took the trouble to compile this, though, like the Beatles Anthologies a decade back, it isn’t really terribly fulfilling. Had someone not put this book together, I probably would have eventually tracked down most of this crap myself, and it presented some things I never knew existed, like “The Private Life of Genghis Khan.” (And for good reason – it’s simply not very good.) Of course, to read his unfinished novel, I would have had to wait for his papers to be consigned to some university somewhere (Probably Oxford) and then traveled there to view the collection. Then I would have invested several thousand dollars in travel expenses to read something that, in the end, would have left me highly disappointed, so, definitely, I’m indebted to the editor and publishers for saving me that. (I’m not being as facetious as you might suspect. For the last year I’ve toyed around with the idea of making a pilgrimage to the Houghton library to read Austin Tappan Wright’s unpublished ‘Islandia’ manuscripts.)

My misgivings about the book are twofold, and not really the fault of the book itself. The first, and most glaring, is the fact that the publisher has occasionally promoted this book as (A) a novel, which it is not, and (B) part of the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, which it also is not. In reviewing the publicity around the book, they do not specifically state either of these things, but they do infer them to a startling degree. They don’t openly lie, but they do mislead with malice aforethought. But, you know, they’re out to make a profit, and I don’t have a huge problem with that. We’re not talking art here, this isn’t Nabokov or Ballard for god’s sake, it’s hokey jokey Douglas Adams, lord of the verbal pratfall. I can’t fault them for their motive, though I can for their specific actions. The book didn’t sell well, and I’m sure they knew that would be the case going into it, so perhaps their demi-lies were justified. Who knows?

(For the Record, Adams says that ‘Doubt’ began as a Dirk Gently book, which he gradually realized really should have been a Hitchhiker book, and decided to rewrite it as such. In his final interview [included in this compendium], he says that it was actually going to be neither Hitchhiker, nor Gently, but was going to be the start of some new series, similar to, but unrelated to, his previous series.)

My second misgiving is that Salmon of Doubt gives us a very clear picture of an author who was simply not much interested in writing anymore. The last Hitchhiker book was written a decade ago, the last of the Gently books – neither of which were very good – was only slightly more recent. Since then, he wrote a book on extinction of endangered animals (“Last Chance to See”) and a couple books of sniglets (“The Meaning of Lif”, “The Deeper Meaning of Lif.”). His essays all talk about how he has to force himself to sit and write, how he has little or no intention of even trying to make his deadlines, and how he writes the occasional article as a means of getting someone else to pay for his vacations, as, for instance, his Scuba Diving trip to Australia. Conversely, he gives speeches, introduces concerts, moderates online discussions, write Computer games, hangs out with the surviving Python troupe and various washed up rock stars (Mike Nesmith, Procol Harum and Pink Floyd being the most obvious. David Gilmore sang ‘Wish you were here’ at Adam’s funeral.), and interviews, interviews, interviews.

Someone - possibly me, I can’t remember - once said, “If a writer is talking about himself, then he damn well isn’t writing anything worthwhile.” Indeed, over the last decade of his life, Adams seemed to take practically no interest in writing, except as a means of assuaging his guilt over essentially being rich as a result of something he did when he was 28 years old. Instead, he was gadding about to Africa in a Rhino suit (Really), toying with neat new computer gadgets, and pretending to be a Hollywood screenwriter. This shows up in his meager output: “Life, the Universe, and Everything” is the longest and least engaging of his books, and was originally written as a Doctor Who script that he couldn’t sell. “So long and thanks for all the fish” is essentially a (Very slim) novel written entirely to get Arthur Dent laid. It’s built around two jokes, only one of which is particularly funny. The first Dirk Gently book is a tedious and unfunny time travel story with a plot that even Adams himself admitted didn’t quite work out logically (And appears to have, likewise, had it’s origins in a Tom Baker Dr. Who episode.) ‘Mostly Harmless’, while better and more coherent than ‘So Long’, serves little purpose other than to get rid of Arthur’s girlfriend, have an Elvis cameo, and kill off all the major Hitchhiker characters. (A sequel was rumored to have been called ‘Death, the Universe, and Everything’, which would have followed Arthur and Co.’s adventures through the afterlife, but this turned out to be an urban legend.) ‘The Long, Dark Teatime of the Soul’ was a completely uncalled for second Dirk Gently book is almost unreadably bad, as though a high school kid with a fondness for (but no real understanding of) Norse Mythology decided to write a book intentionally parodying Adams’ style. Indeed, in one of the interviews in this book, Adams says that he pretty much just wants to write movies now.

He never got the chance, poor bastard. Poor, incredibly wealthy, slothful bastard.

Finally we come to the actual unfinished novel itself. It’s yet more unwelcome crap about Dirk Gently. Even by the abbreviated standards that I use for such things, it’s pretty damn bad. I realize that this was simply rough draft stuff, not intended for publication as is, but, damn, it’s bad. How bad? Remember my off-the-cuff comparison to a highschooler writing an Adams parody? Well, this stuff is so bad that it’s as though the same highschooler – now with some brain damage from doing too much X – decided to write a parody specifically of a Dirk Gently book. It ain’t funny, it ain’t interesting, it ain’t anything but boring, and of course, it ain’t finished, so there’s not much point in reading it unless – like me – you’re a bleeding-from-the-ears Adams fanatic, or were. And if that’s the case, you’re going to be sorely disappointed because of his clear lack of joy, or even interest in what he was doing. There is nothing for a casual fan here, and even less for a real fan.

Adams was a one trick pony, which is fine because it was a good trick. When he tried other tricks, it was merely diverting at best, or openly embarrassing at worst. But in the end, he was bored, even with the one trick he was good at. Thus, though he, himself died in 2001, his novel writing ability died around 1990 or so. And you know what? That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s no law that says a writer has to keep writing forever and ever and ever. He can chuck it any time he wants. Yet somehow, somehow…this book just makes me ache a little bit. I can’t quite explain why.

I guess it’s because while this isn’t the absolute worst book ever written, it is frustrating and ultimately unfulfilling because it strongly implies that Adams’ next eventual book probably would have been his weakest.