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Big Sometimes Friendly Giant

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Thank God for that. Dahl’s adult fiction is fun but often formulaic. It sets up a premise, coldly follows the implied narrative logic, and nearly always ends with a twist. (OMG: The wife is missing her fingers!) There are no accidents or messiness or flights of inspiration.

Dahl’s kids’ stories, on the other hand, are full of characters who transcend narrative logic, e.g., the caterpillar in James and the Giant Peach, a loudmouth who’s always breaking into rude songs and forcing James to help him put on or take off his 42 boots. He does this not because it furthers the story, one senses, but because it’s funny, and because it’s exactly how this particular creature would act if he found himself flying around on a house-size piece of fruit. The keynote of Dahl’s children’s books is delight in wild invention—and delight, too, in the way that invention manages to braid the two opposed strands of his personality, the nasty and the charming, into something unique in the history of storytelling.

The endings of Dahl’s stories are almost always surprising, even when we know the twist is coming. This talent, it turns out, applied equally to the author’s own life. In a hospital, surrounded by family, Dahl reassured everyone, sweetly, that he wasn’t afraid of death. “It’s just that I will miss you all so much,” he said—the perfect final words. Then, as everyone sat quietly around him, a nurse pricked him with a needle, and he said his actual last words: “Ow, fuck!”


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