'The Phantom Tollbooth' by Norton Juster turns fifty.
Even the most confident of writers can be excused for wondering if words, mere black-and-white glyphs, can compete in a world filled with ever more animated, flashing, full-color, special-effects-crammed and interactive visual media. At such times, it’s helpful to remember a passage from Norton Juster’s children’s novel, The Phantom Tollbooth, describing a visit by the hero, Milo, to the archives of the Soundkeeper in the Lands Beyond.
The Soundkeeper boasts that her vaults contain “every sound that’s ever been made in history.” To prove it, she opens a drawer and pulls out “a small brown envelope,” explaining that it contains “the exact tune George Washington whistled when he crossed the Delaware on that icy night in 1777.” Milo, Juster writes, “peered into the envelope and, sure enough, that’s exactly what was in it.” The narrative moves briskly on.
Like much of the best fiction for children, this scene illustrates how writing well consists not only of knowing what to put in, but also of knowing what to leave out. A film version of the scene described above would need to find some way of conveying the truth of the Soundkeeper’s claim. Would that mean simulating the great general’s whistle, wafting out of the envelope as Milo opens it? Or perhaps representing the tune as a physical object, the way that, in a subsequent passage of the book, beats on a bass drum manifest themselves as “large, wooly, fluffy cotton balls” and a handclap produces “a single sheet of clean white paper”? How does Milo perceive the sound, anyway: by seeing it (he “peers” into the envelope rather than cocking an ear toward it) or by hearing it? And how can he be so sure it was made by George Washington?
Text is less constrained. Juster knows that a description of the sound would be superfluous; in fact, he knows the scene is much better without it. As Leonard Marcus relates, in his introduction to the annotated 50th-anniversary edition of The Phantom Tollbooth, the author had mastered the art of omission while writing the novel’s opening chapters. Milo, a boy of indeterminate age and suffering from near-clinical listlessness (“Nothing really interested him—least of all the things that should have”) comes home from another dull day at school to find a large package in his room. The earliest drafts of the book include much business about a doorman receiving the box from a “small wild eyed little man” and Milo’s parents debating whether or not to open it.
All that was gone by the time The Phantom Tollbooth was published in 1961. The package is just there. When Milo assembles the “GENUINE TURNPIKE TOLLBOOTH” inside and drives past its gate in his electric toy car, he suddenly finds himself cruising along a country highway in the magical, allegorical Lands Beyond. According to Marcus (who has had the good fortune to annotate a volume whose author and illustrator are still living), Juster had a “breakthrough” when he realized that he didn’t need to explain how any of these marvelous events came to pass; the reader’s desire to believe in the fairy tale is enough to keep it rolling along as indefatigably as Milo’s apparently self-recharging car. That, plus the assurance of the author’s voice, the authority from which the title “author” is derived. We know the right sound was in that envelope because Juster tells us so.
The Phantom Tollbooth is a book that revels in the freedom and power of language to mean more than one thing at a time, to make an alternate reality. Arriving in the city of Dictionopolis with his faithful companion, Tock the Watchdog, Milo rides through the streets in a wooden wagon that moves by itself, provided its passengers keep silent—it goes without saying. Later, when a second companion, the craven and loquacious Humbug, remarks “Nothing can possibly go wrong now,” he’s propelled from the car onto a little island called Conclusions. In their quest to rescue the exiled princesses Rhyme and Reason, the trio encounters an unpleasant bird called the Everpresent Wordsnatcher, who explains that he comes from the land of Context, although “I spend almost all my time out of it.”
Although the book advances a sunny, mid-20th-century message about the virtues of learning, the charm of The Phantom Tollbooth hasn’t got much to do with order or common sense. (Besides Juster’s obvious debt to Lewis Carroll, Marcus astutely detects the influence of those agents of chaos, the Marx Brothers.) The need for a resolution to the longstanding feud between the cities of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis—between the mathematical and the aesthetic—is just the sort of moral a young architect like Juster might be expected to endorse, especially in the years following C.P. Snow’s famous 1959 lecture, “The Two Cultures,” about the growing gulf between science and the humanities. Yet a spirit of mischief runs away with the book—quite literally, it turns out: Among the ogres who pursue the heroes in the climax are “the Triple Demons of Compromise—one tall and thin, one short and fat, and the third exactly like the other two,” concocted, as Juster told Marcus, for the sole purpose of vexing his illustrator, Jules Feiffer. Behind the book’s homilies about harmony and moderation lies the Word, taunting Pictures with its ability to do whatever it pleases.
Juster and Feiffer were sharing a Brooklyn Heights row house when the former wrote The Phantom Tollbooth, mostly because he’d gotten a Ford Foundation grant to write an entirely different book. The prankish Juster liked to substitute a raw egg for one of the two hardboiled ones Feiffer made every morning, slipping it into the pot when his housemate’s back was turned. Most of what’s great about the annotations in this volume comes directly from the two men: discarded characters and preliminary sketches, a story about a copyeditor at Random House who didn’t get the joke in the five Dictionopolitan ministers who speak in fusillades of synonyms (because “one word is as good as another—why not use them all?”), and helpfully struck out all those needless redundancies. The anxious Feiffer was so unsure of his ability to draw horses that he tried to talk Juster into mounting a line of soldiers on cats instead.
For readers of this annotated volume, some of the Trivium’s horror is undermined by Juster’s confession that the novel describing him was itself the product of procrastination. Although Juster went on to write a handful of other books, his primary career remained in architecture. The Phantom Tollbooth is a glorious interruption. What makes it great—and surely what children most adore about it—is not its lessons on good judgment and the importance of education, but its gleeful nod to the delights of misrule and the pleasure of paradox. It’s a paean to the realm of story, where you only have to say something to make it so, and if The Phantom Tollbooth cautions against the dangers of wasting time, then perhaps its only fitting that it ends up being the very best argument against itself.
Laura Miller is a journalist and critic living in New York. She is a co-founder of Salon.com, where she is currently a staff writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications. She is the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia (Little, Brown, 2008) and editor of The Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors (Penguin, 2000).
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