I only read one short story for today, and that story is "Pig", by Roald Dahl. I like Dahl very much, but it may be that I'm a slightly off brand of Roald Dahl fan in that I didn't grow up reading his children's books, and to this day haven't read a single one of them. Not because I don't want to -- quite the contrary! I simply haven't yet. I'm intrigued by the sinister qualities I'm told are apparent in these books. Such qualities are often praised in children's fiction to a degree greater than how they're actually represented in the book (Neil Gaiman's Coraline, good as I thought it was, was not quite as dark as I'd been told), but having read a pretty healthy handful of Dahl's horror and suspense and just-plain-odd fiction, I believe his often cruel sensibility would be quite something to encounter in whatever form.
In 2006, Roald Dahl: The Collected Stories was published, and I read a review of it in The New Yorker. I can't find that review now, so I can't quote from it or attribute it to anybody, but I distinctly remember the reviewer singling out two of Dahl's stories as going too far, being simply too cruel. Not badly written in any way, but nasty and morally off-putting. Well, I am perhaps putting words in the reviewers mouth by slipping the word "morally" in there, but if a story about cruelty is being objected to because of that cruelty, and it's not being objected to on moral grounds, then on what grounds is it being objected to? Is the question I'm asking you. In any case, that's how I remember it, and upon reading about these two stories I naturally decided that I must read them both, and soon.
The stories in question were "The Last Act" and "Pig". I was very pleased to find both stories in a collection I had called The Roald Dahl Omnibus, and since the reviewer had sort of spoiled the ending of "Pig", I decided to go ahead and read "The Last Act" first. My memory of it is a bit hazy now, but glancing at it again earlier today I was reminded of the gist of its plot, and, anyway, the ending to "The Last Act" had always hung pretty strong in my brain. Because that fucker is pretty goddamn cruel, chronicling a depressed woman's complete psychological dismantling at the hands of one of the single worst human beings in all of literature (the part of all of literature that I've read, anyway) -- Neil Labute could never create anybody to approach him. And as I recall, this man does what he does just to do it, because it's the kind of thing he likes to do. Which I guess is what makes "The Last Act" so cruel, and I suppose now my question to that New Yorker reviewer would be "What makes it too cruel? What constitutes 'just cruel enough'? Should a story like 'The Last Act' soften its impact with some sort of redemption or retribution, and if it did, would it be memorable, or would it be forgotten because it ultimately lacked a spine?" That's at least three questions, and I can't ask any of them since I don't even remember who the reviewer was, but had I the opportunity, you can be assured that ask those questions I, indeed, would.
I couldn't say why, exactly, it took me four more years to get around to reading "Pig", but it did, and here we are. "Pig" is a somewhat different situation, though in some ways it's no less alarming than "The Last Act". Whereas "The Last Act" begins in a more or less standard way, with a description of the main character preparing dinner for her husband (who won't be coming home), "Pig" begins like this:
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.
That "Once upon a time..." can lead you anywhere, and collectively we know that, and so realism is not what we would expect from a story that begins this way. That's not to say that "Pig" is a fantasy, but those joyful parents will go on to be killed by the police after a mix-up ("[T]hey succeeded in scoring several direct hits on each body -- sufficient anyway to prove fatal in both cases.") and the boy, Lexington, will be whisked off to Virginia by his Aunt Glosspan, a merry spinster and vegetarian who teaches young Lexington to cook, and, later, Lexington, age seventeen, will walk from Virginia to New York in sixteen days. So "Pig" has a bit of a fair tale air to it, and you all know how nice those can be.
The boy has an astounding gift for the culinary arts, it turns out, though throughout his childhood with Aunt Glosspan he's never tasted meat, nor is he even aware that people eat the stuff, until he asks his aunt about it. Full of disgust and disdain, she informs him that cows and chickens and pigs are all eaten by most of the rest of humanity, and they the poor animals' throats are slit, and that "they love to eat lumps of cow's flesh with the blood oozing out of it." More fascinated than revolted, Lexington nevertheless sticks to his brilliant vegetarian meals, and even develops plans to write a cookbook, when his aunt drops dead. Finding a note of instructions from Aunt Glosspan detailing what he needs to do in the event of her death, Lexington first buries her, and then goes to the medical examiner to get a death certificate:
"Old Glosspan?" the doctor said. "My God, is she dead?"
"Certainly she's dead," the youth answered. "If you will come back home with me now I'll dig her up and you can see for yourself."
"How deep did you bury her?" the doctor asked.
"Six or seven feet down, I should think."
"And how long ago?"
"Oh, about eight hours."
"Then she's dead," the doctor announced. "Here's the certificate."
It's at this point that Lexington travels to New York City, collects a sliver of his inheritance, and has his first taste of pork. The ending that the New Yorker ruined for me will not be ruined here for you. It's enough, I think, to say that "Pig" is a pretty fucked up story, as is "The Last Act", as are any number of Dahl's stories for adults. He had a particularly merciless imagination, one that was equally vibrant -- this story's grotesque conclusion is set up by a very weird conversation Lexington has with a waiter and a cook, a conversation whose weirdness is never commented upon, the weirdness not being weird in the New York City where "Pig" takes place. And "Pig", at just under thirty pages, makes room for quite a lot of stuff, including a long encounter with an attorney that would appear to not have all that much to do with what the story is ultimately about.
It's a full story, a complete one, and, yes, a cruel one. But my questions about "The Last Act" would apply to "Pig" as well, because to complain about the cruelty of "Pig" is to complain that "Pig" is not a completely different kind of story. Of the kind of story "Pig" actually is, it is a brilliant example -- it rolls on with a great narrative force, wit, shock, horror and elegance, with a last couple paragraphs, and especially last line, that are exquisite. Exquisitely cruel, yes, okay, fine. But still exquisite.