Tuesday, 17 May 2016

To Say Nothing of the Genre

Have you ever read two books and wished you could set them up on a date?

Hector in Alan Bennett’s History Boys becomes a stunning example of the very thing he is referring to, when he says, ‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.’. It is a thrill as rare as it is great, but rarer still is finding books that seem to be reaching out to each other. And I’m not just talking genre. (In fact, let me just say right now that I will never talk genre. In this world of infinite publishing, where absurd lists like ‘5 Best Teenage Alien Romances with Lead Characters from Southeast Asia’ are ten a penny, perhaps it’s worth reminding ourselves every now and then that the only place where ‘genre’ has any real meaning or purpose is on shelf tags in big chain bookstores.)

Anyway, back to the two books. Published some ten years apart, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (by Douglas Adams), and To Say Nothing of the Dog (by that queen of all that is Hugo and Nebula, Connie Willis) are obviously similar in that both are time-travel novels with a comic bent, but it doesn't stop there. To blatantly and quite needlessly plagiarise that classic Sherlock Holmes line, there's a subtler thread of kinship running through this glaring skein of similarity, and I’ve made it my duty to unravel it, and isolate it, and delight in every inch of it.

Let’s start with the simple stuff. Dirk Gently is set in and around Cambridge; TSNotD in Oxford. Poetry is a huge impetus in both. In the former, it’s Coleridge that gets recited and revered, used and abused with reckless abandon; in TSNotD, it’s Tennyson. Although, to be fair, TSNotD (that’s just an awful acronym, isn’t it?) is a goldmine of all sorts of other literary allusions and references. In Dirk Gently, it’s a two hundred year old Grecian urn pot that holds the key to the mystery, where in TSNotD it’s a bird-stump vase ('Just like that poem by Tennyson' as Tossie says, 'Poem to a Greek Vase'.) that stars as the central mystery and what has to be one of the greatest MacGuffins of all time. What else? Protagonists looking for missing cats? Check. Spirits, real or imaginary, pushing the story forward? Check. Passing jibes at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Check. Meditations on matters of Truth and Beauty, with the obligatory hat-tip to Keats? Check, and check! (Dirk Gently is the clear winner in that last category. Richard McDuff’s essay on “Music and Fractal Landscapes” is some of DNA’s best writing.) The time-travellers of both books come from somewhere else. Connie Willis’s Oxford historians were first introduced in her short story Fire Watch, and Prof. Urban "Reg" Chronotis from Dirk Gently was originally created by Douglas Adams for Shada, a Doctor Who episode.

Dirk Gently, the novel and the character, is all about ‘the fundamental interconnectedness of all things’, or ‘chaos theory’, to give it its human-universe name, and (even more) so is TSNotD. But if these two books are about anything, they’re about Conservation. Every novel Connie Willis has ever written is a testament to her love for history. If her plots weren’t so intricate, I would’ve said that they only serve as frames for her to erect fascinating historical trivia around. In that regard, all her books are exercises in conservation. But in TSNotD in particular, the space-time continuum escapes destruction by the skin of its teeth, extinct species are made extant, and at the end is the promise of rescuing and restoring hoards of lost art. In Dirk Gently, a hell lot of art does get rescued, and species too are saved with varying degrees of success, depending on how you look at it. I know it's super-presumptuous to make claims about what the author’s state of mind must have been blah blah, but just this once, I'm going to do it anyway. Douglas Adams, tagging along with zoologist Mark Carwardine, first went to Madagascar in search of the aye-aye lemur in 1985. The experience stirred him so deeply, that he immediately wanted to travel the world looking for other endangered species. He did go on to do this, but not for another 2-3 years. Dirk Gently was written in this period in between. It’s hard not to imagine Douglas’s brain, at once exploding with epiphanies about natural history, evolution, and conservation, and being crushed under the pressure of a ‘last, final, really, really, absolutely final this time; LAST’ deadline as it so often was, spitting out the events of Dirk Gently.

I’ve often tried to pick a favourite of the two. I bow to no one in my love for Douglas Adams, and for that ‘music and mathematics’ essay alone, Dirk Gently should trump most books of its paper thickness and font size, but for the longest time, I didn't think of it as DNA’s best. TSNotD on the other hand, immediately became my top favourite time-travel novel (Oh no, Miss I-will-never-talk-about-genre! Leaving so soon?). But it can’t be done. It’s not at all a fair comparison, really. Dirk Gently is so modern, and urban, and dark, and TSNotD is almost Wodehousian in its quaint, sunny, light-heartedness. They’re nothing alike.

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