Shiny Shelf

Doubts About Salmon

By Jim Smith on 19 February 2003

When Douglas Adams died he left ‘The Salmon of Doubt’, the novel on which he had been working for a decade, less than half finished. It seemed a sadly appropriate end to a career that achieved much, but promised far more. The unfulfilled promised was not solely because of his sadly premature death. Adams’ phenomenal success seemed to take the hunger to work from him, and he wrote far less in his thirty-year career than many writers of similar talent and reputation given as much time.

Although Adams is thought of as primarily a novelist he wrote only seven novels, two of which were actually novelisations of earlier radio scripts. His other credits included a travel book, 14 episodes of ‘Doctor Who’, 12 half hour radio scripts (i.e ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’) and the six 35 minute ‘Hitchhiker’ TV episodes.

Even added together these two careers do not amount to a substantial body of work; while Adams is rightly regarded as an excellent prose writer, a smart satirist and a man of genuine wit and imagination, there seems, on the face of it, little to justify the scale of his reputation. I know, or maybe I just feel, that Douglas Adams – despite his obvious underachievement – was one of the most talented and interesting of late Twentieth Century British writers, but there’s not enough material extant that I could use to prove this to any doubter. It’s a paradox, a writer’s reputation grows out of their work so how come you can’t use Adams’ work to justify his reputation?

Adams’ ‘mature’ career, the period he spent as a writer working largely for its own sake, extends only to four novels (the last two ‘Hitchhikers’, the two Dirk Gently ones) and a travel book. The period where Adams began to draw more fully on his own immense talent and begin to produce genuinely great work – rather than amusing if frequently inspired nonsense – was inhibited by his legendary writer’s block (and I’m sure the reluctance of any hugely successful person to do anything other than enjoy their success) as well as cut short by his absurdly young death. It’s a testament to Adams’ almost heroic lack of output that I bought his previous novel in a bookshop in my hometown after having been given a lift there by my Mother after a day’s school and that I picked up ‘Salmon’ in Hatchards on Piccadilly while giving myself a day off because I didn’t want to spend another day checking the proofs of my own (fourth!) book when the weather had taken such a marvellous turn for the better. When I think of what I’ve been through while ‘waiting for the new Adams’ it makes me shudder at the passage of time.

But back to Adams’ doubters, and how to affect them. Well, I could get them to read his best book, I suppose, but that novel, ‘So Long & Thanks For All The Fish’, while a fine piece of work by almost any novelistic standard, is no use in at all in that respect. A touchingly handled romance, a fine depiction of sliding reluctantly into middle age, a discussion of ‘quest’ narratives, an extended conceptual joke and a denunciation of the worst excesses of the 1980s; it is all of these things. It’s also (in effect) a sequel to a SF sitcom that many wouldn’t distinguish from ‘Red Dwarf’ (spit!) and, perversely, is seriously underrated by his more ardent fans because it doesn’t have enough jokes in. It’s very hard, as a consequence, to get some to see its finer qualities and as a result, Adams’ own.

This is where ‘The Salmon of Doubt’, recently released in paperback, is ultimately very useful indeed. While the book does contain ten (utterly superb) chapters from Adams’ unfinished eighth novel it is, for the most part, a miscellany; a compilation of speeches, letters and other apocrypha rescued from his hardrive by his family and his longtime friend/agent Ed Victor, compiled, edited and sorted into strict chronological order by those nice people at MacMillan.

Posthumous collections by authors are often dry things; they frequently have a whiff of ‘contractual obligation’ about them as if a publisher is keen to make back their investment in a writer somehow. Many people I know who liked Adams’ writing held off on buying the hardback (which, as hardbacks are wont to be, was a pricey thing) because of suspicions of the exploitation of his name and reputation. Yet, while doubtless something, which, conceptually, has an element of this to it, ‘The Salmon of Doubt’, is no makeweight, no mopping-up exercise or cashing-in bit of tat.

Packed between an introduction by Stephen Fry and an afterword by Richard Dawkins (who else could have inspired devotion from two such worthy, yet distinct, luminaries?) are many, many pieces – both long and brief – that will show anyone why Adams was so highly thought of, and cement his reputation in the minds of those of us that already admire him. It’s a rich collection which causes all doubts about Adams’ achievements to be cast aside.

There are essays on PG Wodehouse (perhaps the writer whom Adams most strongly resembled) and The Beatles, and reproductions of sarcastic letters to movie producers. There are excerpts from debates which show the able and educated Adams’ thinking on his feet. There are several pages of Adams’ ruminating on his own nose and more about his many dogs; the book also reprints his introductory remarks from a Procul Harum concert and offers us Adams’ advice on hangovers.

There are many more wry, smart, pin-sharp examples of Adams’ clear writing style and unique worldview contained within ‘The Salmon…’ . It’s a treasury of inspiration, imagination and fine verbiage. It amply demonstrates Adams’ superior skills, his ability to wring absurdity and truth out of the ordinary, his ability to hide from you where he’s taking an idea until exactly the moment he wants you to get there alongside it. It’s a perfect demonstration of why Adams’ writing is so highly thought of, perhaps more so than the finished novel might have been.Wise, compelling and periodically jaw-dropping, ‘The Salmon of Doubt’ also goes on for nowhere near as long as you want it to.

This is, of course, about as appropriate as it could be. I clearly shouldn’t have doubted the Salmon.

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