Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Cult Comedy Books

On the ABC on 15 March, Jennifer Byrne chaired a discussion about cult books. On the panel were Dave Graney, Marieke Hardy, Bob Sessions and Marcus Zusak. I've always thought it spectacularly unfair that Marcus is not only a very good writer, he is also handsome and can play football quite well.

Markus Zusak being unnecessarily handsome.

His nominated favourite cult book was the comedy Catch 22, which I could never finish. Marcus mentioned that for him Catch 22 was a litmus test. People who liked the book, he figured, were his kind of people. So I guess that rules me out - even though I've spoken with Marcus and I thought we were getting along really well. Mind you, I didn't mention my cult book, which might have ruined things completely. It's this old chestnut:

When Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy first came out, I was hooked. I'd already read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Sheckley, to whom Adams' work is compared. I particularly like The Sirens of Titan by Vonnegut, which features the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, probably the closest thing to a forebear of an Adams concept. But while Adams was writing about quasi-science and pop philosophy, he was doing it in a style that seemed effortlessly comic. And to seem effortless you have to put an awful lot of time into getting the words just right. Adams was famous for reworking pages over and over, and also for missing deadlines. Comedy in novels - especially young adult novels - generally gets a pretty bad rap. Often it deserves to. But to me, some of Adams' jokes are like poetry. Okay, maybe describing Zaphod Beeblebrox as 'the best bang since the big one' doesn't qualify, but the opening lines of the first book do:

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

The reference to digital watches has dated, and Adams refused to substitute 'cellphones' in later editions when he had the chance. But don't you love the way such a grandiose sentence can end on such a mundane item? Adams was good at that. But it didn't come easily. He himself expressed disappointment in the last two of the five Hitchhiker books. They really weren't that good. Even the third was a bit wobbly, after the first two little masterpieces. As for the sixth - a book that Eoin Colfer wrote after Adams' death - the less said about that the better. Just please don't do it again.

A really not very good book.

But whack together the first two books in the series - and you have a collection of some of the best comedy ever written. A lot of people know this, of course, and the Adams books continue to show up on top ten lists. (None of the panelists on Jennifer Byrne's show chose the books, though comedy was well represented. Marieke chose The Master and Margarita, Bob chose Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Dave redefined the word 'cult'.)

I agreed with nearly all the comedy choices. But there's a title out there that really should be a cult book but isn't. It's called Augustus Carp Esquire by Himself, and it was first published in 1924.
Excellent book. Shame about the cover.

The author - though his name rarely appears on the cover - is Sir Henry Howarth Bashforth. Anthony Burgess, whose book A Clockwork Orange also has cult status, was a huge fan. Most people who read it were instant converts to the world according to Carp. But for some reason, not that many people did read it. And yet it's every bit as funny as The Diary of a Nobody, which is much more widely known. Carp is about a grotesque, pompous wowser, one of the funniest inventions ever. If you can't find it in bookstores (I had to buy my copy from a secondhand dealer on the internet) then click on that link above the cover for a free e-copy. You won't regret it. And if you haven't read The Diary of a Nobody, click on that link in this paragraph, because you have a treat in store.

By the way, if you're a fan of the Hitchhiker's books, try to avoid the movie and the TV series. You should, however, listen to the BBC audio plays of books four and five. Some think they improve on the original books - especially if you prefer happy endings. (Yes, I know that the first two books were radio shows before they came out as books, and that the first one is especially good.)

For people who have tried to download their free e-copy of Tumble Turn (see earlier post) but found themselves unable to do so, we've made it easier. It downloads to readers like iPads, or you can get a nice PDF to cherish forever. Now, please go and read it then read Augustus Carp. Here are two more nudists, Doris and Charlene, acting out a pivotal moment:


Dmetri said...

Dear Mr Doug. I write as a member of the CBC. Do you really think it is appropriate to expose young impressionable children to nudity? I would have thought a responsible adult such as yourself would know better. I AM OUTRAGED!

DougMacLeod said...

Dear Brother Dmetri, What can I say? I am mortified to have upset a member of the Christian Brothers College. I vow that I will refrain from posting further nudes.

Anonymous said...

Another pivotal moment I guess.


my verification word was


maybe that's a Latin tin opener?