Gleaning from the Charm of James as an Adult by John Tang
I have never read Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach until my thirties. Dahl has a simple way of telling a story that reminds me that stories are supposed to be entertaining.
Morality isn’t innocent anymore under a single lens of wisdom. That topic belongs to other departments now such as the scientists, politicians and philosophers, who are colliding into each other as they try to find the absolute answer for the world. Dahl has a different objective. He aims to tell a fantastic story clearly. Perhaps my greatest folly reading the children’s novel as an adult is that I read the novel like an adult, dismantling the machine, when in fact, the novel just wants to be a story–like an adult as well as a child, however, I’m selfish.
There isn’t a point in the story where in the story becomes blurred by the author’s pretensions. Designed for a fifth grader, the novel seems, you will seldom find a paragraph longer than five sentences. At the points where there are more developed passages, the story never becomes vague. Take one of the most fantastic moments in the story when the party finds themselves in the clouds suspended by two-hundred seagulls. There are cloud-men who are trying to dispatch them with balls of hail. Dahl describes their domicile in candid logical tones:
Once they passed a snow machine in operation, with the Cloud-Men turning the handle and a blizzard of snowflakes blowing out of the great funnel above. They saw huge drums that were used for making thunder, and the Cloud-Men beating them furiously with long hammers. They saw the frost factories and the wind producers and the places where cyclones and tornadoes were manufactured and sent spinning down toward the Earth, and once deep in the hollow of a large billowy cloud, they spotted something that could only have been a Cloud-Men’s city. (Dahl, 100)
Dahl easily enters the city through the image of the snow machine. He writes the introduction to the city with a broad term like “operation.” With that abstract but efficient term, the city unfolds into more concrete details, with distilled image in the mind of “flakes blowing out of the great funnel above.” Comparing Dahl to an author who wants to showcase his flare, like Thomas Mann, your taste in literature will be clearer. There isn’t a author who writes complex compound sentences, a rich adente, like Mann in Doctor Faustus, translated by John E. Woods. Already, by the title, Mann has lofty targets by alluding to a Renaissance masterpiece by Christopher Marlowe. Here’s the third paragraph from the novel:
I am a thoroughly even-tempered man, indeed, if I may say so, a healthy, humanely tempered man with a mind given to things harmonious and reasonable, a scholar and conjuratus of the “Latin host,” not without ties to the fine arts (I pay the viola d’amore), but a son of the muses in the academic sense of the term, who gladly regards himself a descendant of the German humanists associated with Letters of the Obscure Men, an heir to Reuchlin Crotus of Dornheim, Mutianus, and Eoban Hesse. (Mann, 2)
That is a single sentence describing the narrator, who claims earlier in the novel that his objective is to highlight his idol, Adrien Leverkuhn. There are layers of texture, rhythm, and complexity in that single sentence, using different languages (Latin and German), remaining in the abstract, and writing many asides with his parenthesis and commas. It isn’t easy to recall in the mind in an instant. Then again, these fine rich texts make Mann an exceptional pioneer of literature. In his nobel prize speech Mann embraces his ability to thread extravagant detailed sentences: “I have an epic, not a dramatic nature.” The pleasure of reading seems to have two of many realms in which a story can ferment: a. In the case of Dahl, fantastic mythic situations require simple sentences, and b. In the case of Mann, exposition can be pleasant and garnished in rich details.
Maybe I have missed the point of reading James and the Giant Peach if I’m talking about it’s parts, but that’s the writer inside me that craves to know Dahl’s magic. I can’t write as well as him, but if I decide to write a children’s novel, I’m using the British author as a reference and friend.