I just re-read Douglas Adams’ The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul, which I first read as a teenager and have read several times since. But this was the first time I realized why it’s my favorite of his books. I mean, they’re all fantastic entertainment – why this one?
Because it features a lead woman character (Kate). Because Kate buys every bath oil and unguent she comes across. Because since her beloved husband died a few years ago, she’s pursued an ill-advised string of relationships with self-absorbed men simply because it’s so easy to date someone who’s totally focused on himself and won’t notice you don’t care, and she knows it’s a stupid, but she does it anyway. Also, she likes to call up British pizza restaurants (she’s an American living in England) and innocently ask them to deliver, and act like she’s not already well aware they don’t do that there.
And she’s a journalist who won’t let go of a story she’s investigating, so when she gets kidnapped by a Norse God, she’s blase enough about the whole thing to stay focused on said story. It’s interesting, of course, but how is knowing the gods are still alive and storming around Valhalla going to improve her life? It’s not. So there.
Adams could’ve capitalized the hell out of all this rich characterization. Kate could pull our heartstrings with how she’s lost her one true love and doesn’t really care about anything. But Adams lets us make of her what we will… just like he does with male characters. She’s flawed without apology, she’s strong without explanation. She’s not particularly tough, or self-realized. She’s just determined, unafraid (because she has nothing to lose), and well-scented. She just is.
Gender-bending is rarely where we see authors at their best. As far as I’m concerned, Adams single-handedly proved that the only thing that hinders you from writing your opposite gender properly is your own silly hangups.
This was the first book I ever read that characterized a woman so plainly and simply. So like the same author characterizes his men. Adams wrote a bit like a god: the omniscient author dumping his hapless characters in the middle of circumstances they neither sought nor somehow deserved. I think this was how he saw the human condition, and for him “human” included women.