Sam Anderson reviews Donald Sturrock’s new biography of Roald Dahl Storyteller, in NY Magazine:
Many of Roald Dahl’s book covers today come stamped with an official-looking logo proclaiming him “The World’s No. 1 Storyteller.” The declaration is, like Dahl’s fiction itself, simultaneously thrilling and absurd and puzzling and oddly disturbing. How, one has to wonder, was the ranking determined? Was there some kind of single-elimination global storytelling showdown, in which the creator of Willy Wonka, presumably as an eighth-seeded underdog, managed to out-yarn a bracket of, say, Jack London, Salman Rushdie, Isak Dinesen, Victor Hugo, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, and—in what must have been a squeaker of a final—the mighty Dickens? And even if we do accept that result, isn’t the title somehow slightly patronizing? After all, we don’t celebrate Faulkner or Conrad or Shakespeare primarily as “storytellers.” It would be like calling a master chef “The World’s No. 1 Pan-Fryer”—a great compliment, but also one that immediately raises questions about his ability to bake, braise, roast, grill, stew, poach, and flambé.
Dahl was, indeed, a great storyteller: Anyone who doubts that can pull aside a random child on the street and start reading her James and the Giant Peach or Fantastic Mr. Fox. If an adult comes up to object, you can start reading him one of the short stories: maybe “Taste” (in which a dinner-party bet among wine connoisseurs spirals out of control) or “The Sound Machine” (in which a man can hear plants screaming). If a policeman intervenes, read him “Lamb to the Slaughter,” in which a woman kills her husband with a frozen lamb chop, then cooks and feeds it to the detectives who come to investigate. You could probably go on like that forever.
Dahl’s own favorite of his yarns was The BFG, a children’s book in which the eponymous hero, the Big Friendly Giant, walks around city streets at night blowing dreams through a long tube into kids’ bedroom windows. The giant keeps thousands of dreams stored in neatly labeled glass jars in his cave—with the good ones (what he calls “phizzwizards”) carefully segregated from the bad (“trogglehumpers”). “I IS ONLY AN EIGHT YEAR OLD LITTLE BOY,” runs one of the good dreams, “BUT I IS GROWING A SPLENDID BUSHY BEARD AND ALL THE OTHER BOYS IS JALOUS.” (The BFG is a self-taught writer: He learned to read from a borrowed copy of Nicholas Nickleby, whose author he identifies as “Dahl’s Chickens.”) One of the giant’s best dreams reads like a mission statement for Dahl’s career:
I HAS RITTEN A BOOK AND IT IS SO EXCITING NOBODY CAN PUT IT DOWN. AS SOON AS YOU HAS RED THE FIRST LINE YOU IS SO HOOKED ON IT YOU CANNOT STOP UNTIL THE LAST PAGE. IN ALL THE CITIES PEEPLE IS WALKING IN THE STREETS BUMPING INTO EACH OTHER BECAUSE THEIR FACES IS BURIED IN MY BOOK AND DENTISTS IS READING IT AND TRYING TO FILL TEETHS AT THE SAME TIME BUT NOBODY MINDS BECAUSE THEY IS ALL READING IT TOO IN THE DENTIST’S CHAIR.