This year I’m blogging once a month here at Pornokitsch about finishing reading everything Roald Dahl wrote. I’m halfway done, and so far I’ve looked at one of Dahl’s more obscure titles and ones I’ve simply overlooked, like Rhyme Stew.
There are living in the world to-day countless human beings each of whom has knowingly committed murder during war. That knowledge does not weigh an once upon their consciences, yet each of them would gladly, swiftly ostracize a fellow citizen who was caught dealing from the bottom of a pack of cards.
I am a killer myself. I try to feel bad about it, but I never can. I would feel very bad about dealing from the bottom of a pack of cards.
What then is one to think about war? What is one to think about man? What is one to think about the future?
So begins Sometime Never (1948), Roald Dahl’s first novel, and one of only two he wrote with an grown-up audience in mind. After Sometime Never, Dahl would not write another novel for adults until 1979 (the wonderful My Uncle Oswald), and did not write another novel-length book until James and the Giant Peach in 1963. There is power in Dahl’s opening remarks - and his follow-up comments, about how if we humans saw ants making weapons to destroy one another we would assume one day the entire species would annihilate itself. Why not, therefore, assume that about ourselves? Dark, man. Anyways, the introduction is perhaps even more powerful knowing Sometime Never has the distinction of being the first novel about nuclear war published in the United States after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Unfortunately... yes, I’m sorry. Sadly, I must begin with an “unfortunately again.” Ahem.
Unfortunately... most of the best writing in Sometime Never is in that introduction. There is a reason this book was a critical and commercial failure. It is pretty awful. There are no interesting characters, the plot is too sparse for the novel’s length, and the prose is wearying. If I ever read anything about “Athletic- Gremlins” again it will be too soon.
Those of you who checked out my entry on The Gremlins may recall the story - a young RAF pilot sees a little horned creature with suction boots drilling holes in his wing during a skirmish with a German pilot, forcing an unscheduled landing in a field. He reports back to his colleagues and the RAF becomes aware of Gremlins, little creatures who make mischief for airplanes. Well, in The Gremlins, the RAF pilots make friends with these Gremlins and harness their power for good, because after the war the English agree to let the funny little things have their forests back. They even help an injured pilot come back to active duty, though questionably.
Anyways, that doesn’t really happen in Sometime Never. Instead, the Gremlins are a giant pain the ass for a bunch of RAF pilots, and then they mysteriously disappear. Why? Because their leader, via his network of Athletic- Gremlins (argh) has heard about the atomic bomb, and is convinced humans will use it to wipe one another out. If the Gremlins sit back and wait, “increasing their population” (gross!) they will one day inherit the earth because humans are “a brainy creature whose brain is great enough only to plot his own destruction, but not so great that it can save him from himself” (133).
This decision on the part of the Gremlins comes roughly halfway through Sometime Never. The rest of the book is then a cold war allegory-fable- prophecy... thingy. Most of it, sadly, is told via the Gremlins, deep in their tunnels under the earth. As the Leader of the Gremlins predicts, World War III breaks out, then IV, and it’s terrible. Nuclear annihilation. The world gets scarier and scarier:
The Athletic-Gremlin [seriously!!] needed no further prompting. “There is chaos in the land!” he said. “The country is full of dead and dying humans!” He paused to get his breath for he had been running without a stop ever since the morning of the day before.
“It is a mess,” he continued. “England is a mess of shattered houses, roasted corpses, blocked roads, uprooted railway lines and twisted machinery.”
He paused again for he was very much out of breath. “Those humans that remain unharmed wander about the countryside completely dazed and unable to realize their misfortune. In the cities the corpses of the dead litter the streets and lie among the ruins of the buildings.
Okay. See? I’m not being cruel by remarking that this book is not very good. The clunky prose, the lifelessness of the second-hand descriptions, the fact that none of the Gremlins have names or like, motivation beyond obedience to the Leader (which is his only name). While the above excerpt might not seem so bad, imagine reading hundreds of pages of... just that. Over and over again. An Athletic-Gremlin (make it stop) comes to the Leader, relays some info on how much the world sucks. The Leader then schemes and plots and sends more Athletic-Gremlins (someone save me) off to other places to learn more, so they in turn can run back and give reports on how much the world sucks. It’s extremely tiresome.
One can, however, see hints of the macabre and startling writer who would emerge, phoenix-like, from the ashes of this wreck. There are a few effective sequences scattered in among all the nonsense with the Gremlins, such as one where a pilot from Part One is about to come up from the Underground when a terrible explosion occurs aboveground. He and another man clear away the rubble and emerge to find that London has been bombed. The bodies strewn about have been... roasted. There is no blood:
Stuffy looked down at the body of a man lying face upward on the street not more than ten yards away. The face and hands, all the exposed skin was scorched to a dark blackish red and the contours of the face seemed somehow to have melted away leaving a dark red pulpy-looking mess. The hair had been burnt off the head and the skin of the scalp was the same black-red colour as the face (155).
It’s still stilted prose, yes, but much more direct than any of the Athletic-Gremlins’ reports. Anyways, poor Stuffy is so traumatized by all of this that he wanders out of London in a daze and then goes and lies down in a field and dies.
If this bleakness foreshadows the coming greatness of some of Dahl’s later short stories, the constant stuff with the Athletic-Gremlins (gah) foreshadows his worst, especially when he makes a go of remarking on the situation beyond England. Silly foreigner stuff ensues, such as... I dunno, the French go communist and are told how to drink wine and make love, and it makes them angry. The French, amiright? Germany becomes the U.S.G.R. and are orderly and content, just like Germans. The Greeks are also socialist but they’re having population problems because all the women are barren or burned (?). Russia just sucks. America is all insane and blind from germ warfare, India and China are sort of ascendant but they’re going to wage WWIV, blah blah blah.
In the end, the Gremlins hold out until humanity destroys itself, the animals are all dead, and only worms crawl through the irradiated soil. Fun times! But then the Gremlins realize they were products of imagination, and they also disappear. THE END! IT’S OVER!
So... yeah. Gremlins, man.
Yet despite being 100% unenthusiastic about this novel, I’m glad I read it. Why is that? Well, I get to semi-debunk an internet theory that appeared on Cracked.com a few years ago, that recently resurfaced on my Facebook feed to the delight of all and sundry. It’s about Roald Dahl and snozzberries. Cracked writes:
One of the most beloved and oft-quoted moments in the ridiculously beloved and oft-quoted film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is the sequence in which the unbalanced candymaker displays his newest invention: lickable wallpaper. As the children and their guardians go to town on the wallpaper, Wonka declares: "Lick an orange. It tastes like an orange. The strawberries taste like strawberries! The snozzberries taste like snozzberries!" We laugh, because "snozzberries" is obviously a fanciful, fictional word, and nobody knows what they really were. Except that Roald Dahl, the book's author, knew exactly what snozzberries were: They're dicks. Snozzberries are dicks. Willy Wonka made those kids lick dick-flavored wallpaper.
The writer had recently read the aforementioned My Uncle Oswald, which, for the uninitiated, is all about Roald Dahl’s fictional uncle slipping people like George Bernard Shaw the world’s most powerful Spanish Fly in order to steal their semen and sell it on the black market. It’s a gas. Anyways, the lady who’s doing the semen-stealing refers to a cock as a snozzberry, causing the writer to conclude, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was written in 1964, 15 years before My Uncle Oswald revealed that the wallpaper was made to taste like the head of a penis.”
Not quite. While the Cracked site is clearly being facetious about this dick-flavored conspiracy theory, I’m here to tell you that actually, snozzberries predate either My Uncle Oswald or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by 16 long years. They appear in Sometime Never, and they are the primary food source of Gremlins. They grow them in orchards, and they are red, sweet, and juicy. Just like... well, never mind.
Anyway! While I’m willing to bet Dahl thought it was hilarious to refer to a cock as a snozzberry after writing not one but two novels in which they appear as simple fruits, calling a penis a snozzberry in My Uncle Oswald is about as pervy as referring to testicles as plums. Which is to say, somewhat, but not entirely. So there you go. If I’ve contributed anything to the Internet via this project, it’s letting the world know where snozzberries - which taste like snozzberries! - first appear: in rare yet boring little novel about nuclear winter. They aren’t dicks, don’t worry! Go ahead and lick that wallpaper. Cheers!
Next month: I dunno, short stories maybe? Or if my secret source can get ahold of some other stuff, other stuff.