The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster

The Phantom Tollbooth is a 1961 novel presumably intended for children. It appears to be a bigger thing in the US than here.

I read this once, as a child; but I didn’t really remember it. I must have read it in the school library or thing, as I didn’t have a copy, and I think I only read it once. That’s why, when recently I heard the book described, I was gripped by the urge to buy it and read it, because hearing about it was like hearing about a dream – little elements that I thought I had forgotten, drawn from a book the name of which I no longer knew.

It’s a strange book. On the surface, it’s essentially a modern American take on Alice in Wonderland – child enters a fantasy world, encounters strange things drawn from puns and misconstruals of speech. Beneath that, however, it’s a conservative tract on how things now aren’t as good as they used to be, due to the downfall of wisdom and traditional morality and the alienating clamour of modernity: the Kingdom of Wisdom, where young Miles finds himself, has descended into chaos and nonsense, torn between the rival domains of words and numbers, each in themselves useless, all because two princesses, Rhyme and Reason, have been banished. It will be Milo’s task to restore Rhyme and Reason, and hence solve all the problems. At the same time, this quest also represents his own spiritual self-improvement from a lazy, short-attention-spanned child to responsible adult.

I’m not sure why this Message grates on me. After all, I’ve recently read and liked two novels – the fantasy satire Jurgen and the social-realist satire Babbitt – which have exactly the same theme, and similar issues pervade T.H. White and C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and in more occulted form J.R.R. Tolkien. Partly perhaps it’s a matter of extremism, and lack of sympathy. Juster has as much empathy for his characters as an author can be expected to muster for absurdist comic caricatures, but there is little sense of there being any virtue in their life without Rhyme and Reason – whereas the other conservative or religious writers I mention show some recognition that not everything is bad in the modern world, and that restoring rhyme and reason isn’t necessarily simple. Tolkien may sound notes of caution against some elements of modern life, but he doesn’t offer a magic wand to make everything better; Babbitt’s life may be missing something, may be in need of meaning, but it is still in many ways a good life. Juster’s suggestion that the problem is absolute, and the solution simple (at least conceptually, if difficult to implement) feels inhumane. It doesn’t help in that respect that occasionally the conservativism takes an ugly turn – I didn’t like the way that at one point the decline is blamed squarely on immigration, for instance.

[For that matter, the book is very dated in its expectations of gender. I’m not normally somebody to leap on that bandwagon – I think we have to recognise that authors may just happen not to have written about women without their being necessarily misogynist, or that they may have written within, even if against, the culture of their times. But it seemed striking in this book not only that almost all the characters are male (other than two (grand-)maternal figures and the idolised absent princesses Rhyme and Reason), but that it seems to explicitly assume that all heroic or interesting people will be men, and that the readers will be male. This assumption of a universe of male heroism and idealised female damsels in distress worked in Jurgen, in my opinion, because that novel is so expressly about (and satirical toward) the male experience – it is a novel about men, by a man, for men to read, and female readers, while welcome, were not the target audience. But The Phantom Tollbooth has no reason for this sexism – it is a book for children, at least in part about growing up. I think girls can appreciate books with male protagonists, of course – but beyond the arithmetic of character genders, I think I would have found the background assumptions alienating, if I’d been female. Maybe that’s just me.]

Now of course, people are complaining by now, “but this is a children’s book! stop talking as though it’s serious!” – and why shouldn’t books for children be serious, exactly? But more seriously: is it really for children? Apparently it was actually written at first for the author himself, and then for his close, adult, friends, and only later actually published and marketed as a book for children. Children will probably not consciously notice the ideological themes of the novel; but I’m also not sure how many of the jokes they’ll get. I was, if you’ll forgive my saying so, a pretty damn smart child, and I got some of the jokes – one in particular I never forgot – but I don’t think I got many. And I don’t think I found them funny, because they’re not really jokes at all. My response this time was not laughter but, in general, “oh yes, that’s true, that idiom does make little sense if interpreted literally,” and “I suppose that could be seen as a pun, yes, I hadn’t noticed that.”

I’m left thinking it’s too simplistic for adults, but too complicated in its wordplay for children. I was pondering this as I read, and not just as a theoretical problem. I was wondering whether I could read this to a young relative of mine, or whether she might read it herself. I don’t think she’d find it that interesting – it would go over her head. But I worry that by the time she’s old enough to find it interesting, she’ll find it boring. There is, after all, only a narrow space of time between the age when such wordplay can be fully appreciated, and the age when compelling characters and plots are demanded. One reason perhaps that I didn’t fully appreciate this novel in my own childhood was that by the time I was reading this, I’d already read The Lord of the Rings.

As a child, I remember I enjoyed it, and bits stuck in my memory. But I didn’t love it – as shown from the fact that I didn’t re-read it, and I didn’t remember the book as a whole. Rather than being funny, it came across as being weird, in a pleasing way for a child. But there’s little bite to it. I think that may also be part of why the ideology is more grating here than elsewhere: because those other authors seem to have depth to them. There is some coherent ideology behind them, most often a religion, and in reading them there is the sense of something not quite grasped, and of something burningly sincere. The Phantom Tollbooth comes across as a bit of a lark, but also as… shallow. This isn’t religious devotion speaking here; it’s not even a worked-out ideology of conservativism. It’s more… a sentiment. A sort of greetings-card-calendar-wall-poster sort of if-only-people-saw-Rhyme-and-Reason conservativism. Likewise with the comparison to Alice: Carroll mingles absurdities and pop culture references with serious riddles and philosophical questions, even if not very important ones – Alice saying that she has seen many cats without a grin, but never before seen a cat’s grin without a cat is not just wordplay, but also question about the nature of substance and form. Juster’s jokes seem for the most part closer to mere wordplay, to me, though there are a few clever moments here and there.

The other problem is just how the story is told. On the small scale, the difficulty is that much of it is told through a torrent of words, including some long words and a lot of confusing sentences, which is a big part of why I’m not sure about the appeal to children (rather than to the nostalgia of adults who were made to read it as children). I found myself wishing a lot that it would take a breath and just give an evocative description of a scene for a moment, rather than jabbering on. On the large scale, the difficulty is that there is no structure to the novel: a series of things happen in no particularly important order, until they reach the climax and it ends. There’s not a lot of driving impetus in the plot; nor for that matter in the characters, who are not particularly vivid or memorable (with the exception of Tock, the watchdog, and even that may partly be because I grew up with a large pet dog myself).

It’s not worthless, I should say. The didactic sentiment, if unfocused, is sincere, and there is considerable cleverness. Perhaps a child with a particular fascination with language might find it amusing; and indeed, it should be said that in this genre, of children’s novels for children who can already read, there is precious little competition, which perhaps explains why certain novels we remember from our childhoods have an inflated reputation. [Another reflection from life: said young relative is now moving beyond the age of reading very short and very illustrated books for children who are learning to read, but not yet at the age of engaging with adult books, or books for teenagers. There seems to be a surprisingly small number of books for the gap in between, these days, and most of the classic books that would have filled it in an earlier generation are old, dated, and sometimes objectionable to modern sentiments (I’m thinking of writers like Enid Blyton, E. Nesbitt, Arthur Ransome, and C.S. Lewis).]

So I can understand some child liking this book – even loving it, if they read it at an age when they have little to compare it to. Absent nostalgia, however, there is little to interest the adult reader, beyond a general mild likeability.

 

I won’t do a full rating of the qualities of the book, as I think that would be unfair, given that I am not the target audience (which I suspect consists mostly of adults re-reading something they remember well from childhood).

All I’ll say is that in general terms, I think it’s fair to describe it as Not Bad.

 

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