The Frood by Jem Roberts
|The Frood by Jem Roberts|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: For the real Adams fans this is an essential addition to the shelves... some of them may find their favourite author not quite as hoopy as they might have hoped. A solid biography of both the writer and the phenomenon he created, but not the easy read you might expect.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 464||Date: September 2014|
|External links: Author's website|
They say that you should never meet your heroes. After reading The Authorised and Very Official History of Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy a.k.a. the Frood I understand why.
I never heard the original radio series and I have quite deliberately shied away from the Americanised film version (even if it does sell itself well by having Stephen Fry as 'the voice of the book' - I mean, really, in this day and age, who else?!).
I have shied away, because the BBC television series worked so well because it was so cheap and clunky and delightfully captured my personal ideas of Arthur and Ford and Marvin. Bringing that shiningly up-to-date just feels utterly wrong. Even though those in the know feel that it is very much WDWHW (as this book irritatingly phrases it at regular intervals) i.e. what Douglas would have wanted. Douglas Adams wanted a Hollywood version.
I didn’t. And don't. Like I say: never meet your heroes.
And he was (is) a hero of mine.
Because I adore the books. All the Hitchhikers and the Dirk Gentlys. Unlike the preceding fragment, there is no hesitation about the tense of the sentence starting this paragraph. Present. Continuing. I love Adams' novels. I came across the first one through a fellow-Saturday-shop-girl quoting from the radio, which led to the book being on my Christmas list. I read it on a January afternoon having just split from my boyfriend. I read it in one sitting as I have done all the others, the first time. And when I am unhappy, or ill, or unable to sleep, they are among those I go back to. My copies are dog-eared and tatty and yellowing and loved like childhood teddy bears. They're amusing, laughter-generating… but more than that they are comforting. They tell me that someone else sees life and the world as being just as unutterably absurd as I do.
It is always a comfort to know that you're not completely bonkers.
I had therefore always assumed that I'd have loved the creator. To have someone call him The Frood fully fits with the conception I had of him. Before I read the book.
Sadly, I come out of Jem Roberts' trawl through the great man's life not actually liking him very much at all.
I have a great deal of sympathy for him because, as portrayed by Roberts, it seems Adams – like many comedians – was not a very happy person for most of his life, and that is a sadness. If anyone deserves to be happy, surely it is those who engender fun and happiness in the rest of us.
But the world is not a fair place, and it would seem that Adams often found it particularly so.
However this is a review of the book and not of the subject matter, so back to the book. I seized upon it, surprised to find it still lurking on the shelves at Bookbag, and was prepared to love it. In the event, I found it very hard going, and ultimately a bit disheartening - despite the fact that it is laden with original Adams' wit on every third or fourth page at the outside.
We are taken through Adams' early life in the traditional manner, birth, school, parental split, university… but very quickly it is Adams' need to create that takes the foreground. He was to become defined by the Hitchiker series, but the seeds of it, the absurd way of looking at the world are evident early on.
He went to Cambridge, but Footlights was not to be the launch-pad for him that it was for so many others. He struggled even to get in, and didn't thrive when they did let him loose. That's what comes across most in Adams' story. He did not thrive.
That: and the fact that he did not seem to enjoy his stock in trade. If you're of a particular mind-set – which to be fair applies to all writing, but to comedic writing in particular – he is one of THE great comedic writers of the 20th century, perhaps of all time. But he made such damned hard work of it. He used to joke that he loved deadlines, he loved the whooshing sound they made as they passed… but it wasn’t a joke. On more than one occasion he had to be literally locked in a hotel room by friends and publishers to meet a contractual commitment that was so overdue that the notion of any kind of line, let alone a dead one, had become meaningless.
Roberts takes us through the writing of each of the books, each series for the radio. He takes us through the many failed attempts to get a proper Hollywood movie made, the successful television series, the live theatre renditions (some brilliant, some best veiled).
He takes us through the love affairs, the bliss and the depression – and ultimately to the joy of fatherhood. Perhaps if he'd come to that earlier, life might have turned out differently for him.
This is a biography, so much of it is fact after fact. It's told with affection, but without justification. The criticism laid at the author's feet at the time is allowed to stand for it is worth, even as this author takes his own contrary position coming to Adams' defence.
However, The Frood is more than the biography of an author, it is also the biography of a phenomenon: the ongoing self-sustaining entity that is Hitchiker.
Some of the best bits of the book examine the evolution of the plots and plays and puns. These are the bits written largely by Adams himself. There's no end of unpublished humour in here. Some of these sections are a true delight to read… and I'm grateful to Roberts for getting them onto my bookshelf.
At the same time, some of the worst bits of the book lurk in the machinations behind that evolution. Adams claimed to want to escape from Hitchiker, but at the same time he continually pandered to the merchandisers and to his own inclinations to re-render it in every available format going at the very beginnings of the information age.
Adams' was truly fascinated with the potential in the real technological advances of the times. The last 20 years of the 20th century saw the digital explosion's tentative initial fizzling sparks. We need to remember the context. One of the early classic quotes is that humans were a race 'so backward that they thought digital watches were a really neat idea' – and of course, the point is, at the time we did. We had no idea about was coming: the internet, the world wide web, the reality of nanobots and military drones. Adams knew more than most of us. He was a genuine geek.
And maybe that just frustrated him.
Certainly on the page, the rendition is dense and effortful to read.
In the photographs they've chosen to include our man actually looks happy. Not just smiling for the camera, but genuinely at one with himself and the world. I just wish that was what came through the text.
I loved some of the detail, I'm delighted to be able to read the bits that were cut – though most of them were absolutely right to have been excised. But I came away with a picture of a (mostly) unhappy man, who was not a team player, struggled to commit to his own ambitions and when he got lucky did not seem to particularly enjoy the success gifted to him.
I am now not so sure that I would have liked him at all. I'm happy that his friends and family like to think of him as the Frood, but on this telling he's much more Dentarthurdent than Zaphod.
But that's ok… I still love the work and that's what matters.
If you've been living on another planet for the last thirty years or are just too young to understand any of the references in here, go back to the very beginning and read The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy - The Nearly Definitive Edition by Douglas Adams
You can read more book reviews or buy The Frood by Jem Roberts at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Frood by Jem Roberts at Amazon.com.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.