By M. Thomas Cooper
Published June 1, 2008
Reviewed January 25, 2009
Of the many wonderful things that Douglas Adams provided the world in his five-part trilogy “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” the significance he bestowed on the number 42 is probably the most famous. He presents it as the calculation by Deep Thought, the most advanced computer in the galaxy, in answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. Unfortunately, no one thought to ask what the question actually was, and as a result peace and harmony continue to elude all intelligent beings.
As a result of Adams’ seemingly random selection, the number 42 has taken on a heavy significance in popular culture, subject to a variety of interpretations and speculation – and many of those find a home in M. Thomas Cooper’s first novel “42.” Cooper’s take on the number however resembles the films “The Number 23” or “π” more than it does Douglas Adams, an unnerving and constantly aggravating novel where one number seems to hold the significance of an ordinary man’s spiral into madness.
The ordinary man in question is George Olson, a resident of Portland, Oregon who finds his comfortable routine of work and family upended when his wife and daughter disappear. As he tries to decipher the cryptic note they left behind while at the same time denying they have disappearance, he finds himself not only wrapped up in accusations of arson and murder but obsessed with the seemingly random connections the number 42 seems to have with everything happening around him.
“42” is written in a journal format of first-person present tense, breaking chapters up by each day and chronicling every single one of George’s actions and thoughts. It provides a complete view of how his life is unraveling, dodging phone calls and frantically looking around every time his pets disappear. The journal format also allows the book to make some interesting design changes, simulating sticky notes for George’s questions and blacking out the name of the woman he had an affair with like the crucial information in a CIA report.
But its style is also one of its most frustrating attributes. Never breaking from George’s inner monologue means no other voices come in, beyond his interpretations of others’ conversations, and his interpretations are hit-or-miss. He brushes over his inability to answer cryptic references to author Haruki Murakami (a point that begs for expansion) and dwells too much on being alone in an empty house. Also some passages – particularly the prologue – are so overwrought that it evokes an urge to throw the book against a wall just to make him lighten up.
The breaking of Olson’s mind takes a more interesting tone once his fixation on 42 enters, after overhearing a random conversation between two engineering students. Once it arrives his mind is seized, and Cooper has a breathtaking amount of examples he can weave in – birthdates and license plates fill his daily life, but historical connotations such as the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Miami Dolphins and the film “Elf” all have a place as well. However, since it takes almost 200 pages for it to even be mentioned, the 42 argument doesn’t take root firmly enough to warrant reviewing previous chapters for references.
Perhaps fittingly for a novel that depicts a slide into madness, “42” has a very hard time coming to a conclusion. As more characters begin paying attention to his oddities the contrast between him and the world is more apparent, and attempts to connect are well done – including a total breakdown on the witness stand. George’s obsession with 42 does lead him to surprising discoveries, but those discoveries are made at the expense of discarding the questions of arson/murder/Murakami/location of his pets/why his family left him in the first place.
All in all, “42” is a book that depends more on the reader’s connection to the narrator more than any other factor. Hints of conspiracy and supernaturalism are scattered through the book, but we never learn if they exist or are merely symptoms of paranoia. It replicates the mental deterioration after losing one’s family very well, but as a coherent narrative it doesn’t add up – to 42 or any other sum.