I usually post on Mondays, but here it is Friday and I am just getting around to it now. I don’t know how the week slipped by me this way, but I have an inkling my sluggishness has something to do with my disenchantment around our current read, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. We’re not quite finished yet, but from the beginning I have disliked this book. So much so that I urge N’s dad J to be the reader, offering it up like a treat. “Would you like to … ?” He isn’t fooled by my generosity. He finds the story tedious too. And while N thinks the book “seems pretty good,” she is intrigued by our reaction to it.
“You don’t like it, do you?” she asks, grinning.
“No.” How refreshing to be so certain.
To be honest, it’s hard to say, because it’s hard to pay attention to the story. I find my mind wandering as I read (or as J does), and I end up thinking things like, Isn’t it amazing that we can read without comprehending, the way we can hear without really listening, or look without seeing?
But I do try to articulate my reasons to N, because I think it’s important to say more than “It isn’t my cup of tea.” I want her to be able to say why something doesn’t work for her, and perhaps even what would make it better. (Just as I love it when she can tell me why she likes her new friend “Snowy” at school: “We both believe in magic. We both like adventure. We’re both anxious to do things — like something’s buzzing inside us.”)
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator picks up where Charlie and the Chocolate Factory left off, with Charlie, Grandpa Joe and chocolatier extraordinaire Willy Wonka arriving at the Bucket house in the Great Glass Elevator to give good news to Charlie’s family: he has inherited the chocolate factory from Willy Wonka, and they are all going to live there happily ever after and never be poor again. But from there the story spirals off in increasingly bizarre directions. The elevator whisks them into the sky as they begin to make their trip back to the factory, but Grandma Josephine panics, grabs the controls, and suddenly they are orbiting the earth at seventeen thousand miles an hour. The brand new Space Hotel USA is out there too, as is a shuttle containing hotel staff and astronauts communicating with the American president, Lancelot R. Gilligrass, and soon enough the government becomes convinced the elevator contains terrorists bent on blowing up the Space Hotel. The story turns strangely convoluted and political, and ridiculous too, with calls to “Premier Yugetoff” in Russia and “Premier How-Yu-Bin” in China. The president asks knock-knock jokes of the people on the other end of the line: “Knock-knock.” “Who-der?” “Ginger.” “Ginger who?” “Ginger yourself when you fell off the Great Wall of China?” It is truly, groaningly horrible.
I can’t help but feel that Dahl was telling a story for children with a lot of nudge-nudge wink-winks for grown-ups, too, a tactic I really dislike — when the President rhymes off the names of famous hotel owners Mr. Hilton, Mr. Ritz, Mr. Astoria and Mr. Waldorf, it means nothing to N. Nor does the knock-knock joke about “Warren Peace.” Sure, you can explain these things (and pausing to explain can be a lovely part of reading with children), but in this case the iota of humour would be lost by then anyway.
This doesn’t feel like a story written with care. It feels tossed off, and largely Charlie-less. It is picking up slightly, now that Wonka et al have arrived back at the factory, and the story is more solidly focused on its characters, but even here I sensed a wrong note. Willy Wonka convinces Charlie’s curmudgeonly, creakingly old grandparents that they should take Wonka-vite, a pill with the power to make them twenty years younger. With a bit of simple math, he’s warned them of the dire consequences of taking too many. Seduced by the desire to be young again, they grab for the pills and begin to fight over them, eventually swallowing four each and turning rapidly into babies. This tiny moment could have been vintage Dahl, but it’s spoiled by a curious switch in perspective. Suddenly we are in Wonka’s thoughts, of all places, though the power and magic of Wonka’s character lies in the fact that he is enigmatic, mysterious, impossible to understand. But here he is, musing for pages on end: “He hated squabbles. He hated it when people got grabby and selfish…. It was an unhappy truth, he told himself, that nearly all people in the world behave badly when there is something really big at stake.”
I keep thinking back to my earlier research about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and how I read that Dahl hated the Gene Wilder movie version so much he refused a film version of The Great Glass Elevator. “Maybe,” I suggested to J this morning, “he’d finally realized how bad the book was, and was doing damage control!”
But all this negativity is bringing me down. Scouring the internet for other opinions of Dahl’s not-so-great glass elevator, I found this simple, perfect quote by moonflygirl, who’s scanned a load of gorgeous old book covers on flickr. “As much as I love Roald Dahl, I think this book taught me that sequels can be disappointing.” Having gone on at length articulating my disappointment, this one spare sentence feels much more dignified. But I’m curious — how do others critique books with their children?