The name Roald Dahl is now so firmly associated with children’s literature that it’s easy to forget he spent most of his 48 year career writing adult fiction, only really knuckling down to the kids’ stuff in the 70s and 80s. Such is the desire of publishers for new children’s material that some of his adult books have been repackaged for teens. Switch Bitch is not one of them – and if you’ve ever read it you’ll know exactly why!
When we read these days that well-known short story writers of the 50s and 60s had stories published in Playboy, it often comes as a bit of a shock; but we’d do well to remember that Playboy in those decades published a much wider range of material, from science fiction to westerns. Having said that, it would come as no surprise to anyone that the four stories presented in Switch Bitch were originally published in that particular magazine, because this is a slender volume that is very firmly and unashamedly concerned with sex.
Two of the stories in Switch Bitch feature Uncle Oswald, a recurring character created by Dahl who would later go on to feature in his own novel, My Uncle Oswald. He’s a wealthy, amoral, middle-aged scoundrel, whose amorous adventures are relayed in typically witty Roald Dahl style. The two Uncle Oswald stories bookend the collection, the first being The Visitor.
In this story, the longest piece in the book, Oswald Cornelius is travelling across North Africa by motor car when he breaks a fan belt. The typical brash, arrogant upper-class Englishman abroad, he harangues a local merchant into ordering him a new one, but it won’t come until the next day. Luckily, an affluent local offers Oswald the chance to stay overnight in his luxurious home, where the randy gent becomes infatuated by the man’s exotic wife and beautiful daughter. He plans to seduce one or both of them overnight, but things aren’t quite what they seem.
Roald Dahl’s short stories are renowned for their ‘twist’ endings, but a lot of this reputation comes from his work on the Tales of the Unexpected TV series; the endings of his short stories are often oblique and open to interpretation. Sadly, The Visitor isn’t one of those. Of the four stories here, it has the most telegraphed quirk at the end; you might not guess the specifics, but a sharp reader will definitely suspect that something is amiss a long time before it is revealed. Nevertheless, it’s a fun story, expertly told, with a sort of queasy first person narrative that puts the reader right among the murky thoughts of Uncle Oswald.
The second story is The Great Switcheroo; a morally questionable tale of two neighbours who cook up an elaborate plan to sleep with one another’s wives. There’s very little more to the story than that really, except to say that the results aren’t exactly what one of the men was hoping for. Here, as in several of these stories, the author sets himself up as the dispenser of karmic justice; none of the unfaithful exactly comes out of their escapades smelling of roses.
Next up is The Last Act, which is much darker in tone than the other stories presented here. It follows a middle aged woman as she has to confront widowhood followed by her children flying the nest. She flirts with suicide but eventually regains balance in her life through voluntary work. Things seem back on track until she runs into an old flame, whose heart she broke back in high school. They seem to hit it off very well and their friendship quickly becomes physical; the acrimony of their past relationship is far behind them… or is it?
The Last Act ends on a very bleak note, but here we see the aforementioned ambiguity of Dahl’s best ‘twist’ endings. Are the unfortunate events that befall our heroine a cruel incidence of fate or an act of bitter, long-gestating revenge? It’s a much more satisfying climax (no pun intended) than either The Arrival or The Great Switcheroo, but it is tremendously dark and you can’t help thinking that, on this particular occasion, it’s an innocent party that has been punished. The Last Act sits nicely in this position in the collection, being too grim for a place at either the beginning or end of the book.
We return to the exploits of Uncle Oswald for the final story Bitch, in which the randy old letch finances a perfumier’s plan to create a pheromonal spray that will send men into a sexual frenzy. The story takes an unexpected detour when Oswald decides to use the spray to discredit a dishonest and unpopular US president, but as with all of these stories, things don’t quite go according to plan.
Bitch (that’s the name of the spray, by the way) is presented as a broad and bawdy comedy and it’s by far the most sexually explicit story in the collection. If you still needed any convincing that you shouldn’t buy this book for Little Johnny’s Christmas stocking, the contents of Bitch should certainly do the trick! It rounds off the book nicely and leaves you on a relatively upbeat note; you couldn’t have ended Switch Bitch with either The Arrival or The Last Act, as that would have been too dark even for Roald Dahl.
If you’re not used to Dahl’s adult works, Switch Bitch might come as something of a shock, but if you are, you’ll find all the familiar tropes present and correct. At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking there’s a streak of misogyny on display – even the female lead in The Last Act seems cast as a victim – but there’s no glorification in the sexual desires of Dahl’s characters. All of them suffer for their unbridled lust and the overarching message on display here is if you play with fire, expect to get burnt. As Augustus Gloop’s desire for chocolate left him stuck in a pipe, so Switch Bitch’s characters’ desire for sex, power and revenge leaves them in similarly sticky situations.
This book isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and it’s very firmly lodged in an early 60s pipe-smoking, hair-oiled groove, but if you’re open to this sort of fiction, you’ll certainly find a lot to enjoy. These are cautionary tales and should be taken as such; if you don’t find the actions of the characters here reprehensible, perhaps you need to take a little look at your life.
This edition of Switch Bitch was published in the UK by Penguin Books (2000)