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Revisiting "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"

Last week I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Lulabelle.  It was the first time I had read the book in almost twenty years.  I'd forgotten how much I love Roald Dahl since then.

I would like to say he's hilarious, but that's not exactly true; his jokes are more like the laugh-on-the-inside kind of funny.  And I'd like to say that he's really heartwarming, but that's not totally true, either; his writing has a caustic undercurrent of cynicism even as he plays on your most tender sensibilities.

The best way to describe him is that he's got a great knack for inspiring wonder and curiosity.  It's impressive to see how he uses that to his advantage, particularly since he has no concept of pacing.

Dahl takes his time with his stories - he sets things up with only tiny morsels of action and enormous info-bombs, and he's not at all afraid of having seven full pages of exposition right up front.  But he does so in a way that never feels dull or overwrought.  Even though you're sluggishly plowing through massive gobs of back story, the experience is never unpleasant.  In fact, you actually want to keep turning the page and get more.

CatCF, for example, is probably his most beloved and best-known novel, and it moves at a rate that could most kindly described as "deliberate."  Supposedly it's a book about Charlie's tour through a crazy and ridiculous factory, but they don't actually get to the factory until about halfway through.  For that matter, Dahl doesn't even finish introducing all the other contest winners until a third of the way through, and he doesn't even talk about the contest with the golden tickets until about a tenth of the way in.

I find this peculiar and amazing because story pacing is one of those things I'm always terrified about.  Not long ago I wrote a post about how I was worried that Bitter People Without Souls is too slow because I didn't get to the central conflict until about one third of the way in.  (I've since pared that down a bit, but not as much as I'd like; it's now more like a quarter of the way in.)  I'm always worried that if I'm taking too much time with exposition or set up, people are going to get bored and chuck the book.

But Dahl doesn't seem to have that insecurity.  He write so confidently - you can almost imagine an impatient kid sitting next to him going, "When are they getting to the chocolate factory?  Where's the chocolate factory?" And instead of losing his cool, Dahl just keeps telling the story and pretends he doesn't even hear the little brat.

CatCF is not alone in this respect.  Shortly afterward, I started reading The Witches to Lulabelle, and that book is the same way.  I'm just about to get to the point where the protagonist gets turned into a mouse - the event that most people would probably call "the plot" - and I'm just shy of the one-third mark.  The first fifty pages (no exaggeration) are just a kid talking to his grandmother about witches.  But it's actually still a page turner.

Dahl was a master at keeping his readers hooked, and CatCF is a stellar example of the man at his finest.  I could complain about some of CatCF's seedier aspects and the racist undertones.  I could complain that the characters are all flat archetypes, that Charlie is as boring and vanilla as children's protagonists get, and that the ending is abrupt and anti-climactic (which is why both movie adaptations inserted some third-act drama to spice things up a bit).  But who cares?  It's a fun and awe-inspiring story and I can't wait to revisit it again when Lulabelle is old enough to understand the words.

Although... I will make one complaint.  It's about Mike Teavee's song.

Fans of the story, whether in book or movie format, know that after each child disappears in the factory, the Oompa-Loompas sing a song about how terrible the kid was.  I think the 1970s adaptation nailed the tone of these songs perfectly; they're meant to be funny, silly songs that bring levity to the situation and remind you that the kids aren't actually dead, but that they really shouldn't have such bad habits.

While the book generally hits that same tone, it goes off the rails for Mike Teavee's departure.  His song starts out kinda fun and silly just like all the others, but then it gets angry, crotchety, cruel, and bitter - and then it goes on.  It's the longest song in the book by far, and halfway through you realize Dahl isn't just writing some funny little lark about how watching too much TV is bad for you... you realize he was foaming at the mouth at his typewriter, his eyes twitching while his heart pumped rapidly out of control.

He wasn't just grinding an axe about TV.  He was using an industrial-sized boring machine to obliterate an arsenal.

Suddenly the book seems like this was his point all along.  As though the entire thing was just as an excuse for him to put up a soapbox and yell about television.  And once his rant was over, he forgot what he was doing and couldn't be bothered to think of an ending.

It doesn't diminish the rest of the book, but holy crap.  It's a good thing he came up with so many vivid visuals early on.  Without them, I'm not so sure the book would be so well-regarded today.

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