To celebrate my birthday this year, I asked my friends to recommend a book that was published in 1980, the year I was born. My friend Elizabeth reminded me that "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe" by Douglas Adams was published in January 1980, and that was easy for me to read (or re-read, as the case may be) since I happened to own it.
For those not in the know, Douglas Adams was a truly eccentric British writer who worked on "Monty Python" and "Doctor Who," and who wrote the quirky book series "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" (now a TV show on the BBC starring Samuel Barnett and Elijah Wood) and the so-called "trilogy" of five books in the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series. Adams's work had such a cult following that fans established an annual day of celebration of his life and work called Towel Day, held annually on May 25, because fans of "Hitchhiker's Guide" know that you must always know where your towel is.
"The Restaurant at the End of the Universe" is the second book in the Hitchhiker's Guide series, and begins with my favorite opening of any book I've ever read: "The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move."
The book picks up with our plucky hero Arthur Dent and his bizarre group of fellow travelers -- Ford Prefect, Tricia McMillan/Trillian, Zaphod Beeblebrox, and Marvin the Paranoid Android -- aboard the Heart of Gold starship about to be destroyed by the horrid Vogons. Through improbable odds, they manage to escape and Zaphod decides his new mission will be to find the man who rules the Universe. But first, he must eat.
Here we end up at the titular restaurant which exists in a bubble that is projected through time to the actual end of the Universe so that diners can watch the world explode. Its slogan: "If you've done six impossible things this morning, why not round it off with breakfast at Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe?"
The dinner is only the beginning of the adventure in this book -- an adventure that finds our group separated upon leaving the restaurant, with Marvin presumably heading toward certain death, Arthur and Ford being sent back in time to be stranded on prehistoric Earth, and Zaphod and Trillian continuing to search for the ruler of the Universe.
In the first book, we learned that a computer was built and programmed to answer the Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything and found the answer to be 42. But since no one ever knew what the question actually was in the first place, a new computer was built to figure it out. Unfortunately, that computer (aka Earth) had been destroyed. Arthur, as practically the last Earthling, has decided to try to figure out the Question for himself, so far without success.
This book is full of the same improbable, ridiculous, nonsensical whimsy that infected the first book, but it is here that the books start to take an odd turn into melancholy. For all the craziness and "fun" adventures Arthur experiences, it begins to become apparent that he's an unlucky sort. Even though he has survived the destruction of Earth, things inevitably do not go well for him at every turn.
In all honesty, I still enjoy reading the Hitchhiker's series for the sheer absurdity of it all, even though I start out identifying with the confused Arthur and usually end up feeling more like the perpetually depressed Marvin. It's a series that takes a bit of mental gymnastics to appreciate, especially since Adams's stories are usually an insane tangle of tangents to unravel.
However, it's ultimately a good read because it's so different from everything else. It forces readers to exercise their imaginations and abandon logic for a time. And perhaps, at the end of it all, view the world with a slightly sillier perspective.