Sunday, May 19, 2013

Review: Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl

I thought I had read all of Roald Dahl's marvelously grotesque books for children, until this year when I discovered that somehow I'd missed out on Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, the sequel to the classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This wouldn't do. After all, Dahl wrote many of my absolute favorite children's books, like The Witches, The BFG, Danny the Champion of the World and Matilda. Unfortunately, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator isn't the strongest of Dahl's books - I might even call it the weakest.

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator starts where Charlie and the Chocolate Factory left off. Charlie and Grandpa Joe, along with Wonka himself, have picked up the rest of the family and are sailing upward in the factory's glass elevator. They soon find themselves orbiting around Earth, just as the United States is celebrating the grand opening of the first hotel in space. But Vermicious Knids from the faraway planet of Vermes turn up with malevolent intentions.

During this first part of the book, scenes with Charlie and Willy Wonka are interspersed with scenes with President Gilligrass of the United States, his vice-president (and former or not so former nursemaid), and his advisers. These characters form a satirical caricature of the American government during the Cold War. There's the Chief of the Army who likes "blowing things up... It makes such a lovely noise." There's the Chief Financial Adviser who spends his time literally balancing the budget on his head. And Mrs. Taubsypuss, the president's cat. The problem with this is that the book is meant for children, who will certainly not pick up on the political satire - though they might pick up on the uncomfortably stereotypical accent of the Chinese premier - "Here is Assistant-Plemier Chu-On-Dat speaking. How can I do for you?" Yikes. Although much of the satire is sophisticated, the tone is still geared towards children. A series of silly knock-knock jokes, for example. The chapters with the President bog down what is otherwise a fun adventure battling the gruesome Vermicious Knids. Speaking of the Knids, their first appearance in the book is a high point and precisely the sort of half-hilarious half-terrifying writing that one expects from Dahl.

The second half of the book takes place back in the chocolate factory, where Mr. Wonka invites Charlie's aged grandparents to take Wonka-Vite, a pill that literally makes you twenty years younger. This amusing idea is developed over eight chapters, but it has about enough substance for two or three at the most. This is where Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator is so different from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: in the latter, clever ideas are quickly developed, only for new clever ideas to supersede them, while in the sequel, we basically have two ideas, the Vermicious Knids in space and Wonka-Vite. The potential for expansion in the first book is enormous. After all, there are always more rooms to explore in the factory. The sequel on the other hand is really about two good chapters' worth of material stretched out to a whole book. It's not surprising that Dahl never completed a third book about Charlie and Willy Wonka.

The best part of the book is a long Oompa Loompa song about a child named Goldie who eats an entire bottle of her grandmother's chocolate-covered laxatives. The moral is to never take medicine if you don't know what it's for - or end up like Goldie, who "was forced to stay/ for seven hours every day/ within the everlasting gloom/ of what we call The Ladies Room." The song hearkens back to the wonderful Oompa Loompa songs that run through the first book and adds a much-needed spark of ghoulish humor.

In the end, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator suffers chiefly because it feels so much like a mere addendum, a short detour before the happy ending. But we already know from the first book that Charlie's troubles are over, Vermicious Knids or no. He has won for himself and his family a happy, secure life at the chocolate factory and whatever adventures may happen, the essential tension of his story has already been resolved. Real Dahl aficionados will find lots to love in this book, but for most readers, particularly parents looking for something to read to their children, Dahl's other delightful books should take precedence.

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