By Stephanie Pushaw, CutBank Fiction Editor
I first read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in its essential form: the mass-market paperback that came out in 1981, its ubiquitous cover featuring a bold seventies typeface, a defunct Earth, an eyeless green planet sticking out its tongue, and—at the bottom—a round hand, earnestly thumbing for a ride. This copy had clearly been much-read: fat yellowed pages fanning out, exclamation marks in the margin near the best jokes (all ten thousand of them), flimsy cover peeling off in places. I’d pried it from the communal bookshelf in the London flat my family and I were staying in for a few months. I was thirteen. I read it in a couple hours—one of the beautiful things about the world of Hitchhiker’s is that you can stay in it for as long or as brief a time as you want to—and was all in. It was funny and weird and there were parts I knew were even funnier and weirder, if I could just wrap my head around them. The world ended in the first ten pages, leaving just one Earthling to bound into the deepest recesses of space across a series of fabulous vessels—and what thirteen-year-old hasn’t entertained thoughts of doing that? But beyond the glamorous spaceships, the sharp British wit, the hijinks and battles of interstellar travel, the book held a solemnity as well: everything seemed fraught, even when it wasn’t, with some unspeakable truth about the universe we’d better not look straight in the face for fear of being blinded. The funny bits, I realized, were the only way to deal with the darkness.
I left that copy in the bookshelf when we returned to the States, feeling like I’d been meant to find it—like I’d been let in on some big crazy secret I now had a responsibility to tell others about (I guess at that tender age my narcissism was so well-developed I still thought I was discovering things, even though Hitchhiker’s and its sequels have been consistent international bestsellers since the day it was published—translated into thirty languages by the time I picked up that first tattered copy in 2005—not to mention the explosive popularity of its other iterations, most notably the radio series that spawned the books in the first place. We won’t mention the movie. We just won’t.). And when I got back to California, back to the house and dog and small eighth grade class, I realized: I needed to read it again, needed to feel again that sensation of escape. I don’t know why this memory sticks with me, but it does: at the now-defunct Borders on the Santa Monica Promenade, I made my way to the sci-fi section and found the holy grail: a leatherbound edition of all the Hitchhiker’s Guide books. The checkout guy looked stoked I was buying them. “All five books in the trilogy!” he said, and I, still thirteen, probably said something irrelevant in reply, thinking: Another thing I know must be funny but I just don’t get.
About the series, many minds have said things, and I don’t think I could say much more—or really adequately translate why they’ve been a sort of therapy for me over the past ten years. They’re science fiction, but they’re comedy, but they’re deadly serious. It’s not important to me to slot them into a genre, or defend them as literary; it’s important to me that every time I open up that hardcover, I find something that gets rarer and rarer for me every day: a universe so fully contoured, so bulging with strange possibilities, that for those few hours I am not thinking about anything else.
Six years after I first read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I returned to London. I’d probably re-read the series four times in those six years, my leatherbound omnibus taped up now, its gilt-edged pages losing their sheen. I’d read it after various small college heartbreaks to help get over myself, because it’s virtually impossible to read it without laughing; I’d read it when, stuffed to the gills on “deep” and “challenging” and “literary” assigned literature—even when I loved it—I just couldn’t take another paragraph of Beckett brooding or Nabokov embedding clues into epic poems. I rarely even finished it, on these re-reads; the first chapter, or the first half, was usually enough to knock back into me the wit and whimsy of this alternate world. I’d given up, by then, on hoping for a spaceship to land in an empty field and beam me up to the marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V. The world was proving itself slowly to contain enough mysteries and marvels to content myself with, only looking up now and again longingly to the distant stars.
But, back in London, I found myself on one hot spring day getting off the tube in Archway with a friend and walking through the iron-gated streets to the Highgate Cemetery. We passed Karl Marx’s grave, featuring a massive bust of the man himself and an exhortation: WORKERS OF ALL LANDS UNITE! We passed the grave of George Eliot, a simple stone with her real name, Mary Ann Cross, engraved below her pseudonym. And then we found it: under a copse of tall trees, another plain tombstone, rectangular like a hardcover book. Carved with thin shallow type, just the words: Douglas Adams. Writer. In front of his grave was a small earthenware pot. It was bristling with pens. Nothing fancy, no Montblancs, no silvery quills. Just cheap plastic Bic pens and ballpoints. I left a pen, too, whatever I had in my pocket. Here, the pens seemed to be saying, in this supposedly haunted cemetery, in front of the grave of a man who died too young, who left behind something that does, at times, truly seem like the guide to the universe. Here. Write us just one more thing.
Stephanie Pushaw is a writer from Malibu, California. Her work has appeared in Fractal, Slippery Elm, The Believer Logger, DIAGRAM, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a fiction editor at Cutbank and a Truman Capote Fellow at the University of Montana. Her essay "Crickets: A Love Song" won the 2014 DIAGRAM essay contest and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is working on her first novel, which features several dog characters. Read more of her work at stephaniepushaw.com.