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'Hitchhiker' Has a Life of Its Own : Author Debates Style and Content on Promotion Tour

April 19, 1985|JON D. MARKMAN | Markman is a Times copy editor. and

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the new wing of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel sat a tall, unregarded author orbited by an soggy herd of sheep-descended life forms--just-washed Italian wool socks.

Douglas Adams, enormous author of the enormously successful trilogy, "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe" and "Life, the Universe and Everything," does not slip his size-11 feet into just any old thing. When your books have sold upward of 7 million copies in the English language in six years, you can afford to have style.

Sometimes--such as when your Missoni hosiery is so fine a hotel laundry won't touch it--you have an overabundance of style.

And that, Adams said, is where he may have erred with his latest creation--a fourth book in the series, entitled "So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish." While some critics have called it the best of the four science-fiction/parody volumes the 32-year-old Londoner has written, he fears that it may be an unfortunate triumph of style over content.

Change of Direction

"I tried to change direction while writing this book," he said while in Los Angeles on his second worldwide "Hitchhiker" promotion tour in three years. "Everyone wanted another 'Hitchhiker' book--and that wasn't what I wanted to do. So I often had to arch my back around things."

He paused and looked off into the distance.

"It's easy to lapse into self-mimicry," he finally added. "In this one, I was too concerned with what not to do rather than what to do. . . . Style should be determined by content. When style determines content, you've got trouble. There was perhaps a mismatch of medium and content here."

"So Long" has become popular nonetheless. It is No. 10 on the national best-sellers list, and the 6-foot-5-inch author is surrounded whenever he shows up at book stores to autograph copies.

It almost does not matter whether it is good or not. The saga of space strangeness he dreamed up as a teen-ager while lying, looped on lager, in an Austrian field has taken on a life of its own.

The story has appeared in almost every entertainment medium known to the Milky Way--including a computer game, radio, television, a phonograph record and, soon, motion pictures. Ivan Reitman, producer of "Ghostbusters," is producing a movie from a screenplay Adams has written.

The story concerns the intergalactic misadventures of Arthur Dent, a British citizen who learns that the Earth is about to be destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Just in time, Dent is transported into space by a passing flying saucer.

Wearing only the bathrobe he happens to have on at the time, he careens from terra incognita to terra infirma , meeting aliens that E.T. would have found weird. On one planet, pollsters, admen and consultants cannot figure out how to manufacture fire.

"We've got to find out what people want from fire, how they relate to it, what sort of image it has for them," one executive says at a meeting.

In "So Long," Dent finds himself back on Earth--and that was the source of Adams' troubles. The dark-haired, quiet author, who says he aspires only to write "1/100th as well" as British humorist P. G. Wodehouse, seems to want to write a simple and hilarious story of love between Dent and a woman named Fenchurch. Yet bizarre extraterrestrial life forms, a quest to discover God's Last Message to Creation and a desire to find out why all the planet's dolphins have vanished keep getting in the way.

Lack of Connection

There is so much going on that it takes short chapters to get them all in. Adams does not connect most of the goings-on in the plot and doesn't apologize for it.

"Life doesn't really connect," he said, "and a novel doesn't have to either.

"The book is picaresque, impressionistic. . . . People write to me with mechanical, rational explanations for all of it--and none of it has any resonance. The explanations may make these people feel good, but that's all."

Going for Laughs

In younger days, Adams said, he did write tight plots for a popular BBC children's radio show called "Dr. Who." Then, he said, he discovered that combining good scenes, structure and plot is "next to impossible." In "Dr. Who," he was forced to go with the plot. In his own books, he goes with whatever makes him laugh.

Some of the best scenes in "So Long," it turns out, are taken from his own experience, not his interstellar daydreaming.

In one, Arthur charms Fenchurch with the tale of how he did "only what any red-blooded Englishman would do" when a stranger on a train began eating biscuits Arthur had just purchased. "I was compelled to ignore it," he says.

In the story, Arthur goes at it like a British gladiator--ignoring the man's indiscretion with tremendous fierceness. Then he discovers the horrible truth. He had been eating the other man's biscuits.

"It really happened to me," Adams said, "and I have been telling the story for years.

Reclaiming the Story

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