31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 12: “Pig” by Roald Dahl

May 12, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Best of Roald Dahl

The_Best_of_Roald_DahlReaders familiar with Roald Dahl’s writing exclusively through children’s books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, or Fantastic Mr. Fox, may be startled by his fiction for adults, with its twisted plots, grotesque situations, and macabre humour. Then again, maybe not. It’s clearly the same sensibility at work, simply tilted at a different, more rakish angle. To anyone who is familiar with Dahl’s short stories, it should come as no surprise that Alfred Hitchcock was a fan, and adapted two of them – “Lamb to the Slaughter” and “Man from the South” – for his television series. (He even directed the former himself.) “Man from the South” was also freely adapted by Quentin Tarantino for his episode of the anthology film Four Rooms.

Of his lesser-known stories, “Pig” showcases Dahl’s seemingly effortless ability at plot manipulation and his ultra-dark humour.

The story is broken into eight short sections, the first of which is a bravura set-piece that manages to stand as a story unto itself, all the while integrating seamlessly with what follows. The opening line introduces the story’s protagonist – or, as Dahl prefers to call him, “our hero” – in a manner that explicitly evokes a child’s fairy tale: “Once upon a time, in the City of New York, a beautiful baby boy was born into this world, and the joyful parents named him Lexington.” What is remarkable about the incident that follows is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with Lexington. Rather, Dahl abandons our hero at the beginning of his own story to dramatize the way in which he became an orphan.

The scene, involving his parents’ return from a night out to discover they have forgotten their house keys, is a comic masterpiece. Unable to raise their nanny, they decide to break a window and hoist themselves inside the house. Three trigger-happy cops “of Irish extraction” stumble across the pair and, mistaking them for burglars, fatally shoot them. The cops, we are told, had all “received medals before for killing robbers,” and in the aftermath of this shooting they are given citations, notwithstanding the fact that the couple they killed were entirely innocent.

The opening of “Pig” is masterful: economical, funny, and surprising. The association with children’s stories in the opening line is immediately subverted, although the fairy-tale motif is extended in the realization that this is to be the story of an orphan, a familiar feature of children’s literature. Dahl’s insistence on referring to Lexington as “our hero” also has echoes of classical stories for children.

Further elements of what follow add to the story’s fractious relationship with the fairy-tale genre. Lexington is adopted by one of his father’s aunts, who lives in an isolated cottage in the mountains. Aunt Glosspan is not a witch, however – she is a vegetarian. Surrounded by animals as the only company in her hermit-like existence, Aunt Glosspan has decided that eating meat is not only grotesque and vulgar, but actually nauseating. When she explains her aversion to six-year-old Lexington, the young boy reacts first with incomprehension, then with revulsion:

“Vegetarians like us don’t have nearly so many foods to choose from as ordinary people, and therefore they must learn to be doubly expert with what they have.”

“Aunt Glosspan,” the boy said, “what do ordinary people eat that we don’t?”

“Animals,” she answered, tossing her head in disgust.

“You mean live animals?”

“No,” she said. “Dead ones.”

The boy considered this for a moment.

“You mean when they die they eat them instead of burying them?”

“They don’t wait for them to die, my pet. They kill them.”

The rhythms of this dialogue – which becomes increasingly gory as Aunt Glosspan goes on to explain how pigs and cows are butchered and cooked – mimic those of children’s stories, continuing the association with fable that Dahl has been insisting upon from the start. This association will play out through the remainder of the tale: of course Aunt Glosspan dies, and of course the boy must leave his isolated cottage and travel to the city, where his innocence and naïveté are challenged and exploited. And of course he will make a surprising discovery at a rundown urban greasy spoon: pork, Lexington determines, is actually delicious.

To give away any more of the plot would be a crime, but suffice it to say that Dahl’s Grand Guignol ending does not entirely come out of nowhere: careful readers will notice the ways in which the author seeds the ground in earlier sections of the story. Indeed, this is a story that almost demands to be read twice, the first time to follow the twists of the plot, the second time to savour the intricate construction that makes up the fictional edifice.

First published in 1959, Dahl’s story feels simultaneously timeless and absolutely up-to-date: it traffics in contemporary settings and subject matter, but employs classical conventions and approaches. Admittedly, “Pig” may not be for everyone. But readers with a warped sense of humour and an appreciation for macabre playfulness should delight in Dahl’s grimmest of fairy tales.

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