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December 14, 2005

Filed under: fiction»writing»analysis

The Hitchhikers Guide to Mythology

Apparently visitors to the Clarendon Barnes and Noble are not at all interested in having their books wrapped by two attractive young things practically radiating holiday cheer and pleasant banter. So Belle worked on Mario Kart, and I read the first 150 or so pages of Neil Gaiman's most recent book, Anansi Boys. It's very good, and very funny--Belle can attest to my distracting snickers at various passages. It is, however, very reminiscent of Douglas Adams in tone, with a comfortable level of exaggeration and many meandering asides. If it weren't for the obsession with myth and a skill with juggling points of view that Adams never really mastered, you might even mistake the author. This isn't entirely surprising, since Gaiman knew Adams, and wrote the definitive history of the Hitchhiker's Guide. It is a bit out of character. I've enjoyed Gaiman's books and think he's a fine writer, but I've never thought of him as "funny."

There is a subtle difference between Gaiman and Adams that proves telling, however. It concerns their approach regarding a main character. Both here and in other titles, Gaiman writes about someone who comes into contact with weirdness, and is changed. The protagonists become more adventurous, lose their tolerance for a tedious normal life, and eventually lead a fuller life. We are meant to see this as an improvement. In American Gods, the change is even framed as "becoming alive."

In contrast, the main character of Adams' Guide books was Arthur Dent, a profoundly normal and slightly boring man, who really only wanted to go back to being normal and slightly boring. It is one of Adams' finest subtle jokes, in reflection, that Dent is not only heroic by complete accident, but he wouldn't really want to be any different and he doesn't attempt to become so. We are used to characters that grow more outgoing, distinctive, and ambitious. Western cultures, as I was saying earlier, encourage that kind of individualist approach. Of course, Adams probably didn't mean anything profound by it. More likely he found that a steady, stereotypically-British straight man was the best foil for his particular comedic strength of satiric set pieces and off-beat conversation. Gaiman can clearly write those, but his aim is for a different target.

The lesson that I'm taking away from it is that sometimes the best characters don't have to be heroic. I know that sounds cliched, but it's often hard to remember when writing because we want to root for someone. It's hard to write fiction that's comfortable enough to slack off a little. I think Anansi Boys does take itself less seriously, and the protagonist is stronger for it. In contrast to the bland hero's journey of Richard in Neverwhere, or Shadow's drift through American Gods, Fat Charlie has a better dynamic with his surroundings (particularly with Gaiman's clever use of embarrassment as a motivation), even if he must eventually become less of a mark (I couldn't resist peeking at the last few pages before we left). I'm looking forward to finishing the other 150 pages, and finding out if my theory's correct.

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