Saturday, 16 November 2013

Book Review: Switch Bitch

Title: Switch Bitch
Author: Roald Dahl
Year Published: 1974
Genre: Short stories, Erotic humour

Dark, funny and always bizarre, Roald Dahl’s short stories usually climax in some sort of terrifying, karmic twist. Switch Bitch is a collection for four such tales, where sex is the word of the day and the word of the day is sex.

In ‘The Visitor’, we are introduced to Uncle Oswald, a pompous, hedonistic womanizer who finds himself stranded in the Sinai Desert. He is rescued by the wealthy Mr Aziz, who takes Oswald to his desert palace where temptation awaits in the form of Aziz’s wife and daughter. The story begins a little slowly, but the atmosphere – the sense of entrapment – and Oswald’s morally dubious character are built to wonderful effect. By the end of it all you’re not sure whether to feel bad for the poor bastard, though you’ll definitely be amused at his expense.

Next comes ‘The Great Switcheroo’, wherein our narrator fancies sleeping with his neighbour’s wife. A plot is hatched: each man learns the other’s “routines” so that they can impersonate one another and swap wives for a night. The ins and outs of this horrible plan are carefully detailed and the tension is built up masterfully. Mr Horrible Husband’s comeuppance proves to be very satisfying. Serves him right.

The third tale, ‘The Last Act’, was my least favourite. It tells the story of Anna as she deals with the loss of her beloved husband. Unlike the protagonists of the other tales, Anna seems like a genuinely sweet person – or at least someone who isn’t an intentional asshole – and her fate just feels depressing. Without the bite of ‘justice’, this story comes across as more dark than darkly funny. Further, it lacks the hook of a high-concept premise and is considerably less exciting, with the story feeling directionless for the most part. For these reasons, ‘The Last Act’ doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the collection and creates a bit of mood whiplash.

In ‘Bitch’, we have another of Uncle Oswald’s adventures. This was perhaps my favourite story. The premise is certainly novel: a scientist invents a perfume that fills men with uncontrollable lust. The development, testing and eventual ‘use’ of this dangerous substance are detailed meticulously, with the scientific jargon adding to the realism and hence the suspense. It’s (relatively) fast-paced, action-filled and light-hearted compared to the other stories. To me, it was also the funniest of the lot.

If you only know Dahl as a children’s author (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, Fantastic Mr Fox and so on), a collection like this might take some adjusting to. If you’re worried about ruining your childhood, know at least that the sex scenes aren’t explicit. The raunchiest of them happens in ‘Bitch’ and that one is full of hyperbole; generally, the sex scenes serve to humour rather than titillate. Know also that sex isn’t exactly the key feature of all these stories, but rather, more of an excuse of a theme to justify bringing these stories together. Both surprisingly and unsurprisingly, these stories were first published in Playboy. So there you go.

Dahl’s trademark wicked, twisted humour are present in all four tales, which are also fun to read for the puzzle-solving aspect of their characters’ conundrums. Tense and tightly plotted, each story is easily read in one sitting. There’s a somewhat ponderous yet comfortable feel to the writing style here – necessarily different from Dahl’s children’s books – which may factor into your enjoyment of these stories. It took me a while to get into ‘The Visitor’, for example, since it started off so slowly.

A further warning: these stories were written in the 60s, and they do feel a little dated (wives are synonymous with housewives, for example). That said, I still found them incredibly readable. Recommended for someone appreciative of dirty jokes and after a quick, clever, twisty read.

Alex’s Rating: 4/5 

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