I am putting my true nerdiness on the table with this week's selection for Monster of the Week: The Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal from Douglas Adams's classic The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Two comments about this monumental work of genius:
Adams, like PG Wodehouse, was obsessive about sentence structure. See Ethan's wonderful Wodehouse post, which has a bit about Adams at the end. Both these men understood that the essence of comic writing is rhythm. In music or boxing, rhythm might be the result of a lot of practice, but it unfolds instantly in the moment. In writing, good comic timing or rhythm, paradoxically, comes about through painstaking fiddling and cutting, a process that in itself is sort of inimical to what it aspires to. Nothing is less swinging than a writer going over and over the same sentence, trying to make it funny. But when the reader encounters it, it feels effortless. This is why, I think, it is so easy for people to underestimate comic writers. It feels so light, but it is really quite heavy. Wodehouse reportedly put pages of his manuscript on the walls of his room, near the baseboard; as he revised them, he moved the pages up the walls bit by bit. When a page reached the ceiling, it was ready.
When I went to the miserable Upper Moreland Public Library at age 12 and tried to check out Hitchhiker's Guide, the librarian said to me, "Do you read a lot of science fiction?" I said, "Not really." She said, "You should really wait until you've read more science fiction until you read this book, since it is a parody of science fiction and you won't understand the jokes until you understand the genre better." This is not only completely untrue (Adams creates his own genre, and like all great popular artists, teaches his readers how to read him) but just an incredibly misguided action on the part of this librarian. Is a librarian's job to take books out of the hands of readers? Is she meant to be a dragon guarding the cave of literature? This may have been the same librarian who told me that I used the word "like" too much. I only ended up reading Hitchhikers when I was about 30. While I adored it, it would have been better at age 12.
I wish I could, like, feed that librarian to the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal.
This terrifying monster is mentioned only obliquely in two entries of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which, if you have not read the novel, is a book-within-the-book, a fictional interstellar encyclopedia and advice guide.
Here is what we learn about the beast from the entries on towels and on Vogons:
A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you -- daft as a brush, but very very ravenous). . .
Here is what to do if you want to get a lift from a Vogon: forget it. They are one of the most unpleasant races in the Galaxy - not actually evil, but bad-tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous. They wouldn't even lift a finger to save their own grandmother from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without orders signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters.
The best way to get a drink out of a Vogon is to stick your finger down his throat, and the best way to irritate him is to feed his grandmother to the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal.