Monday, July 11, 2005

Read "The Great Switcheroo" and you'll see what I mean

Margaret Talbot has a nice essay about Roald Dahl in this week's New Yorker. She writes that while kids devour his stuff, it puts many adults off—the children's books, anyway. "Dahl’s books regularly show up on the American Library Association’s list of titles that patrons ask to be restricted from young children or removed from the shelves," she writes. Indeed, his stories were often lurid, violent, and eccentric. But that's exactly why kids like them, Talbot says. Virtuous children fight—and win—the good fight, and rotten grownups always get theirs in the end.

Most of Dahl's early stories were for adults, Talbot writes, and while The New Yorker accepted a few early in his career their popularity soon waned. "Dahl's adult stories were crisply, shiveringly enjoyable—rather like "Twilight Zone" episodes—but they showed little compassion or psychological penetration. It was children, it seemed, not adults, on whom Dahl could lavish empathy."

True, they don't brim with benevolence. In one, "Lamb to the Slaughter," a lady gives her disagreeable husband the quietus with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooks and serves it to the cops who come to investigate the murder. But again, that nastiness is Dahl's charm. He could be viciously funny or deliciously droll, and his perceptions were dead-on. I've always remembered this description from "The Way Up to Heaven": "The chauffeur, a man with a small rebellious Irish mouth, didn't care very much for any of this..." And the stories in Switch Bitch, incidentally, are downright scandalous. The two books that make up his memoirs, Boy and Going Solo, bridge the kid-adult gap nicely. No questionable content, lots of exciting accounts from his days as a Royal Air Force fighter pilot, and the underlying sweetness of his worldview—his pro-underdog sentiments, his intense love of family—shines through on every page.




  1. mag has a point, which i hate to admit it because i love dahl's stories as much as richard fariña's, patricia highsmith's and nelson algren's. the 'sinai desert incident' is so great that it takes a day or two to realize that it's actually an andrew dice clay joke in spats.
    it's mostly, maybe only, in his non-kid canon that dahl elbows down to the tough job of revealing the complexities of characters who keep to themselves.

  2. hello again, cmcdougall. well, yes, it is an interesting point, if you allow that he really was more sympathetic to children. but he does, as you suggest, empathize with adults -- the weirder, not-so-happy ones. his characters only kill spouses who are terribly annoying and/or mean, after all-- and they get away with it, too.

    i'll have to read up on this nelson algren fellow.

  3. but that's also the weakness of his stories -- they become star vehicles for the single odd personality he's exploring, and everyone else is just a stock character wheeled out to fill in the background (Dickhead Hubbies, Bumbling Cops, Angry Old Biddies). They're beatifully described, true, but shallow -- like that gleaming playhorse in some novel (damned if i can remember which) that had nothing beneath its lacquer but sawdust.

    algren, on the other hand, attacks from the opposite direction: his good-guy characters do some awful things, and his awful characters are pretty likeable, so you're forced to deal with them moment by moment and incident by incident, just as you would with anyone else you know (no matter how much you love your friends, for instance, can you predict how they'd react if they found a wallet in the street, or had a gun pointed at them?)
    but maybe algren paid the price for trying to weave together so much emotional complexity -- after 'never come morning' and 'the neon wildnerness,' he seems to have written himself out. he's best known for 'the man with the golden arm,' but to me, it reads like a plumped-out screenplay.

  4. ah, don't you ever feel that everyone is just a stock character in YOUR life? there's something pleasurable about a story that indulges that self-centeredness. come to that, there's something CHILDISH about that perspective, too. hey! maybe we've hit on something about old roald here ...

    but you're right, the best thing a writer can do is make his characters full, real people. i always like a good anti-hero. have you ever read mary gaitskill's stories? her folks are always sincerely messed up, and while she gives them backstories and reasons -- childhood abuse, punishing parents -- she never gives them excuses. she just prizes them open and shows us a maggoty intersection. that can make for rough reading, though. "the girl on the plane" is about someone who was involved in a gang rape as a young man, and damned if it isn't hard to relate to that dude. GOD that story is hard to read. food for thought: is it reasonable to expect the characters in our reading to be people we'd want to have a beer with, as they say? or should we sometimes detach ourselves for novels that read like human anatomy lessons? or...does a good writer aim for a middle ground?


  5. on the roald again,
    just can't wait to get on the roald again...
    i've got a gaitskill collection in a pile somewhere, and now that you've enticed me with 'the girl on the plane,' i'm going to dig it out today. i'm impressed that anyone would even try peeking into a gang-rapist's head in a short story. that sounds like raymond carver or JT Leroy territory, and you know they'd denude the tale of virtually all landscape and supporting cast to save room for as many twists as possible in that guy's psyche.
    so now i've got gaitskill in my carry on bag for a long flight tomorrow -- what else do you recommend, oh belles letrist?

  6. ray carver always breaks my heart, though, and gaitskill sometimes just turns my stomach. (her novel, "two girls fat and thin" is stronger than her stories in that it uses humor to make us feel her people's humanity.) i assume you're thinking of "so much water so close to home." somehow i think that's less of a highsmith-esque portrait-of-a-psycho piece than it is a normal-people-do-effed-up-things, who-knows-why, come-on-feel-the-noise moment.

  7. "tell the women we're going." that's the one i meant. -- Katie

  8. About the adults... I am a huge supporter of encouraging kids to read. And, although some parents may shiver at the thought of their child reading some of Dahl's work, it's their responsibility not to discourage their child's interest. It's also their responsibility to be ready to answer any questions from their children. Thoughts?

  9. I agree with SamIam about parents needing to be aware of what their children are reading. Parents shoudl read some of the material that their children are reading so that they can get a glimpse into the world that attracts their children. If parents' stomachs turn or hearts break, perhaps that is a sign that children need to have the opportunity for more parental discussion. Remember that discussion is not censorship. there needs to be a two way dialogue between parent and child about reading and other issues.