Absolutely Squiffling: Growing Up with Roald Dahl
WHEN I WAS TEN — or thereabouts — I decided to read everything that Road Dahl had ever written. This was just the beginning of a lifetime of compulsive reading behavior, wherein I would grow enamored with an author and thrash my way through their entire bibliography, before suddenly growing sick of them and dropping them, often forever. (See: Stephen King, Ayn Rand, Philip Roth.)
With Roald Dahl, I never grew bored. I tore through Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach and Fantastic Mr. Fox before moving on to more obscure fare like The BFG and The Witches and The Twits. When I discovered that the adult section of the library also had a whole shelf of Roald Dahl short story collections, I checked these out too. Dahl published more than three dozen books during his lifetime, and although I failed to read them all, I made a champion effort. At the very least, I exhausted the ample offerings of the Menlo Park Public Library.
I was a lonely child — too smart-alecky and goody-two-shoes for my own good, the kind of socially inept kid that lurks around the edges of the playground wondering why no one invites them to play. I didn’t watch TV. I volunteered at the local library, for fun. I wore my cousin’s out-of-style hand-me-downs (I’m still traumatized by the memory of a pair of turquoise pleated polyester pants with a matching check button-down shirt, worn about the same time that my peers discovered acid washed jeans and off-the-shoulder T-shirts). I let my mom cut my hair in a bad approximation of the Dorothy Hamill hairdo. I was not a popular birthday party guest, to say the least. It was no wonder that I could identify with Roald Dahl’s heroes and heroines.
In Dahl’s books, children have no friends their own age; often, they have no one who loves them at all. In James and the Giant Peach, James is the battered slave of his loathsome aunts; in The BFG, Sophie lives in an orphanage; in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie’s only confidant is his penniless nonagenarian grandfather. Dahl captures the cruel isolation of adolescence and transforms this exile into victory. In his books, his heroes inevitably find the one person who understands them (a magic chocolatier; a talking grasshopper; a friendly giant). Sometimes, they even discover they have superpowers. Always, they wreak their revenge upon their tormentors.
In other words: Dahl tapped into my own secret desires, even if I couldn’t express them myself.
Dahl’s been dead now for twenty-two years; James and the Giant Peach, the first children’s book he ever wrote, recently had its 50th anniversary. Compared to the gothic and cynical supernatural fare currently imbibed by modern tweens, Dahl’s oeuvre is cartoonish — full of shoe-loving centipedes, Oompa-Loompas, and monkeys called Muggle-Wumps — as well as anachronistic, with its whiff of English boarding schools and post-war Wasp life. And yet his books remain delightfully fresh and refreshingly naïve, frequently devolving into blithe silliness. It’s no wonder that Gen Xers are nostalgic for his stories, two of which have been made into movies in the last few years (Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox.)
Though Roald Dahl was not the person his fans probably hoped he was. As a child, I imagined him as a genial, whimsical, elf-like man; when I grew up and read his biographies, I discovered an anti-Semite and misogynist, a distant parent to his five children and a bullying husband to his two wives. And yet I should have gleaned this from his books, where his distaste for mankind is clear. While he clearly loves his enterprising child-heroes and their wild inventions, his adult characters are typically repulsive, selfish, and short-sighted. The turtle-loving child in his short story “The Boy Who Talked To Animals” is a perfect Roald Dahl proxy when he turns to a group of men making “foolish remarks in loud voices” and furiously chastises them: “All of you are horrible and cruel.”
Dahl’s distaste mirrors a child’s mistrust of grown-ups and authority figures, and he translates this natural opposition into the most visceral, physical terms. The adult characters that oppress Dahl’s heroes are always grotesquely described, like Farmer Bean in Fantastic Mr. Fox:
Bean never took a bath. He never even washed. As a result, his earholes were clogged with all kinds of muck and wax and bits of chewing gum and dead flies and stuff like that.
Or, Aunt Sponge in James and the Giant Peach:
Aunt Sponge was enormously fat and very short. She had small piggy eyes, a sunken mouth and one of those white flabby faces that looked exactly as though it had been boiled. She was like a great white soggy overboiled cabbage.
He also didn’t shield his young readers from the sadistic and morbid. In James and the Giant Peach, an angry rhinoceros eats James’s parents by the second paragraph; by the fourth, James’s aunt Sponge and Spiker are beating him senseless. And while Dahl’s heroic children often suffer, their enemies come to even more horrifying ends. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory alone children are squashed flat, dropped down a garbage chute, turned into giant blueberries, and shrunk to the size of a matchbox. Dahl the Author is a vengeful God, laughing along with Willy Wonka as greedy Augustus Gloop is squeezed through a chocolate pipe.
And yet — my main memory of Roald Dahl’s books is of the irrepressible joy within them. Dahl’s persona as narrator is that of the reader’s kooky best friend, someone who often addresses the reader directly and sprinkles his books with nonsensical joy. “How wondercrump!” cried the BFG., still beaming. “How whoopsy-splunkers. How absolutely squiffling.” (For years after reading Dahl, I would invent my own words, unconcerned that the gibberish I was scribbling might not exist in a dictionary.) Things are consistently described as “fantastic” and “marvelous,” his books suffused with a well-deserved wonderment at the outrageous inventions therein. (What are grinksludgers, squeakpips, and vermicious knids? With names like that, does it even matter?) And, most importantly, his characters not only triumph in the end, but they triumph in public, extreme ways — acknowledged by the Queen, paraded through New York City, given the keys to a chocolate factory.
It would be a stretch to say that I became a writer because of Roald Dahl; though I certainly fixated on writing stories around the same time that I was reading his books. In fiction, he taught me, one can correct all the injustices of the real world, one can wreak revenge and claim victory and wallow in all the squalid cruelty that would normally cause your parents to send you to therapy. In fiction, the world can be as fanciful and bizarre as you want it to be, and events will always benefit you in the end.
In fiction, James of James and the Giant Peach can go from being an abused orphan to having outrageous magical adventures with oversized insects before becoming a famous, internationally beloved author:
James Henry Trotter, who once, if you remember, had been the saddest and loneliest little boy that you could find, now had all the friends and playmates in the world. And because many of them were always begging them to tell and tell again the story of his adventures on the peach, he thought it would be nice if one day he sat down and wrote a book.
So he did.
Twenty years after reading these words — despite having never eaten a magic crocodile tongue or drunk a fizzy lifting drink or performed telekinesis — so did I.
Read Part II here