Posts Tagged ‘Norton Juster’
I’ve written about The Phantom Tollbooth a number of times on this blog, but I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned that Norton Juster’s fantasy contains the most moving passage I’ve read in any modern novel. Shortly before leaving the kingdom of Dictionopolis on his quest to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason, our young hero Milo has the following exchange with King Azaz the Unabridged, who has just been asked who will accompany Milo on his journey:
“A very good question,” replied the king. “But there is one far more serious problem.”
“What is it?” asked Milo, who was rather unhappy at the turn the conversation had taken.
“I’m afraid I can only tell you when you return,” cried the king, clapping his hands three times.
After many adventures, Milo and his friends arrive in the realm of Digitopolis, where they have a similar exchange with Azaz’s brother, the Mathemagician:
“But there is one problem even more serious than that,” he whispered ominously.
“What is it?” gasped Milo, who was not sure he really wanted to know.
“I’m afraid I can tell you only when you return. Come along,” said the Mathemagician, “and I’ll show you the way.”
Finally, at the very end of the novel, after Milo has returned in triumph from the Castle in the Air, he finally learns the truth:
“That’s why,” said Azaz, “there was one very important thing about your quest that we couldn’t discuss until you returned.”
“I remember,” Milo said eagerly. “Tell me now.”
“It was impossible,” said the king, looking at the Mathemagician.
“Completely impossible,” said the Mathemagician, looking at the king.
“Do you mean—” stammered the bug, who suddenly felt a bit faint.
“Yes, indeed,” they repeated together, “but if we’d told you then, you might not have gone—and, as you’ve discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”
And for the remainder of the ride Milo didn’t utter a sound.
In a book that’s as full of wisdom as any I know, this may be its wisest and most mysterious moment, and it never fails to choke me up a little. Like most aspects of The Phantom Tollbooth, it’s something that can be hard to appreciate until you’ve grown up and had a chance to absorb some of its lessons on your own. Anyone who decides to pursue a life in art—or any urgent but impractical dream—does so in defiance of all the odds. As I’ve mentioned before, a writer needs to be irrationally optimistic to believe that he or she can succeed where so many others have failed: no matter how detached or objective you try to be in other aspects of craft, you wouldn’t be taking this risk at all if you didn’t believe, deep down, that somehow you were the exception to the rule, despite all early evidence to the contrary. As Paul Graham has pointed out, young people have an advantage here, because they don’t know how impossible their goals are:
One reason the young sometimes succeed where the old fail is that they don’t realize how incompetent they are. This lets them do a kind of deficit spending. When they first start working on something, they overrate their achievements. But that gives them confidence to keep working, and their performance improves. Whereas someone clearer-eyed would see their initial incompetence for what it was, and perhaps be discouraged from continuing.
But really, it doesn’t have anything to do with age. There was a point in my life—heck, it might have been earlier this morning—when I was convinced that I wanted nothing more than certainty: a guarantee, or at least a preponderance of evidence, that the stories I wrote would be read. Even now, though, I’m not sure that will ever be the case. There’s still a decent chance that the next story I submit to Analog will be rejected, or that the novel I’m currently revising without a contract in hand will never see the light of day. On an even more basic level, there’s always the fear that I’ll wake up one morning and find myself unable to write at all, despite the fact that I’ve done so nearly every day for years. When you come right down to it, there’s nothing more impossible than the idea that a writer can start with a blank page and turn it into something that other people will want to buy and read. Even if it’s not precisely impossible, it’s still exceedingly unlikely, and that essential implausibility of the writing life is something that never goes away. And if I’ve managed to come even this far, it’s because I’ve learned to forget how impossible it really is.
This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of two of the most extraordinary works in all of American literature, Catch-22 and The Phantom Tollbooth, which were published, remarkably enough, only a few weeks apart in 1961. What’s especially fascinating about these two novels, one of which has long been one of my favorites and the other which I read only recently, is that while they’re rarely mentioned in the same sentence, they’re often startlingly similar, almost as if they’d been written by the same man. (And I’m not even counting the fact that they both have characters named Milo.)
What follows is a series of quotations, some slightly modified, from both novels. Can you tell which is which?
- Since he had nothing better to do well in, he did well in school.
- When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered.
- Life in school was no different than life had been for him all along. Whoever he was with always wanted him to be with someone else.
- Each man looked very much like the other, and some looked even more like each other than they did like themselves.
- Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.
- “That’s absurd.” “That may be true, but it’s completely accurate, and as long as the answer is right, who cares if the question is wrong?”
- “I’d give everything I own to him. But since I don’t own everything, I can’t give everything to him, can I?”
- “All I meant was that perhaps it wasn’t too important.” “Of course it’s not important,” the man snarled angrily. “I wouldn’t have asked you to do it if I thought it was important.”
- Most of the official documents that came to him did not concern him at all. The vast majority consisted of allusions to prior communications which he had never seen or heard of. There was never any need to look them up, for the instructions were invariably to disregard.
- As always, they moved in ominous circles, for if one said “here,” the other said “there,” and the third always agreed perfectly with both of them. And, since they always settled their differences by doing what none of them really wanted, they rarely got anywhere at all—and neither did anyone they met.
- The only people permitted to ask questions were those who never did. Soon the only people attending were those who never asked questions, and the sessions were discontinued altogether, since they agreed that it was neither possible nor necessary to educate people who never questioned anything.
- “I only treat illnesses that don’t exist: that way, if I can’t cure them, there’s no harm done—just one of the precautions of the trade.”
- The leader of the team of doctors was a dignified, solicitous gentlemen who held one finger up directly in front of him and demanded, “How many fingers do you see?” “Two,” he said. “How many fingers do you see now?” asked the doctor, holding up two. “Two,” he said. “And how many now?” asked the doctor, holding up none. “Two,” he said. The doctor’s face wreathed with a smile. “By Jove, he’s right,” he declared jubilantly. “He does see everything twice.”
- “But why do only unimportant things?” “Think of all the trouble it saves. If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. Because there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing.”
- Actually, there were many buildings that he had not helped build, but he was proudest of the one here. It was truly a splendid structure, and he throbbed with a mighty sense of accomplishment each time he gazed at it and reflected that none of the work that had gone into it was his.
- He invariably leaped before he looked and never cared where he was going as long as he knew why he shouldn’t have gone to where he’d been.
- It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.
- “We don’t want to get anything done; we want to get nothing done, and we can do that without your help. You see, it’s really quite strenuous doing nothing all day, so once a week we take a holiday and go nowhere, which was just where we were going when you came along.”
- His father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa. On long winter evenings he remained indoors and did not mend harness, and he sprang out of bed at the crack of noon every day just to make certain that the chores would not be done. He invested in land wisely and soon was not growing more alfalfa than any other man in the county.
- “You see, to tall men I’m a midget, and to short men I’m a giant; to the skinny ones I’m a fat man, and to the fat ones I’m a thin man. That way I can hold four jobs at once. As you can see, though, I’m neither tall nor short nor fat nor thin. In fact, I’m quite ordinary, but there are so many ordinary men that no one asks their opinion about anything.”
- “I was a fascist when Mussolini was on top, and I am an anti-fascist now that he has been deposed. I was fanatically pro-German when the Germans were here to protect us against the Americans, and now that the Americans are here to protect us against the Germans I am fanatically pro-American.”
- “Are you ready to be sentenced?” “Only a judge can sentence you.” “Good point,” replied the policeman, taking off his cap and putting on a long black robe. “I am also the judge.”
- As a member of the Action Board, the lieutenant was one of the judges who would weigh the merits of the case against the accused as presented by the prosecutor. The lieutenant was also the prosecutor. The accused had an officer defending him. The officer defending him was the lieutenant.
- And the crowd waved and cheered wildly, for, while they didn’t care at all about anyone arriving, they were always very pleased to see someone go.
Answers: Odd-numbered quotations are from Catch-22, even ones from The Phantom Tollbooth—and it’s almost enough to make me wonder if Joseph Heller and Norton Juster were the same man. (You know, like Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger.)
Michael Chabon’s wonderful appreciation of The Phantom Tollbooth in the New York Review of Books puts me gratefully in mind of one of my own favorite novels, a book that I read and loved as a child but didn’t fully appreciate until picking it up again a few years ago. As a kid, you respond most immediately to the surface pleasures of Norton Juster’s great book: the puns, the absurd characters and situations, the seemingly effortless skill in storytelling, and, not least of all, Jules Feiffer’s remarkable illustrations. It’s only much later that you realize that this book of amiable nonsense is actually an instruction manual on how to be alive, and in particular on how to be a real grownup.
Most works of art are gloriously useless, but The Phantom Tollbooth is one of those rare novels, like In Search of Lost Time, that is both a masterpiece and full of incredibly useful advice. Juster doesn’t simply put Milo in the Doldrums, for instance, but gets him out as well. How? By thinking. He demonstrates how easy it is to jump to Conclusions, and that you can only get back with a long swim in the Sea of Knowledge, from which you emerge perfectly dry. He tells you how to deal with the Senses Takers of the world, whose forms and questions can drain you of your sense of purpose, duty, and proportion—but not if you keep your sense of humor. Through my namesake, Alec Bings, he reminds you to always look at the world from different points of view. And it’s a miniature symposium, of course, on the joys of words, numbers, colors, and music.
But the greatest episode in the novel, and one that you can only truly understand after you’ve tried to be a grownup for a while, is the story of the Terrible Trivium. Reading this scene again a few years back, after I’d quit my old job and was trying to make a life for myself as a writer, was a jawdropping experience. In the Mountains of Ignorance, Milo and his friends encounter an elegantly dressed gentleman without a face, who charmingly asks them to complete a few simple tasks—moving an enormous pile of sand with a pair of tweezers, emptying a well with an eyedropper, digging a hole through a cliff with a needle. They get contentedly to work, and it’s only after hours have passed, and Milo calculates that they won’t be done for another eight hundred years, that the awful truth about the stranger emerges:
“Quite correct!” he shrieked triumphantly. “I am the Terrible Trivium, demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit.”
And then he explains, whispering softly:
“Now do come and stay with me. We’ll have so much fun together. There are things to fill and things to empty, things to take away and things to bring back, things to pick up and things to put down, and besides all that we have pencils to sharpen, holes to dig, nails to straighten, stamps to lick, and ever so much more. Why, if you stay here, you’ll never have to think again—and with a little practice you can become a monster of habit, too.”
Needless to say, Milo and his friends escape—but it took me years to make my escape as well, and as we all know, the Terrible Trivium is always lurking nearby, ready to snatch us up. It’s for that reason that I try to reread The Phantom Tollbooth every couple of years, if only as a reminder that the world is full of books and ideas and art and music, that I have all the tools I need to be a real human being, and that as much as I’d like to live in Juster’s world—which is the greatest children’s book of the twentieth century—there’s just so much to do right here.
As a bonus, here’s the map I drew for my wedding day, inspired by Jules Feiffer’s beautiful endpapers:
Yesterday, I wrote briefly about movies with great closing lines, of which there are surprisingly few. The last lines of books present the opposite problem: there are almost too many to choose from. The last line of a novel is almost always of interest, and just a glance at the American Book Review’s list of the hundred best closing lines (available as a PDF here) is a reminder of how many great ones there are, and how hard it is to reach any kind of consensus.
I hope you don’t mind, then, if my own choices are pointedly personal and idiosyncratic. My favorite closing line from any novel—which, oddly enough, didn’t even make the longer list of the American Book Review’s nominees—is probably from John Updike’s Rabbit Redux, in which Harry Angstrom, after a few bewildering months on his own, finds himself back in bed with his estranged wife:
He. She. Sleeps. O.K.?
It’s a little hard to appreciate out of context, but that final “O.K.?”—with its strangely moving terminal question mark—sometimes strikes me as the best thing Updike ever wrote. It rather astonishingly manages to evoke the radio transmissions of the moon landing (whose repeated uses of a taciturn “O.K.” run throughout the novel), the ending of Ulysses, and the rhythm of the final lines of Updike’s own Rabbit, Run: “…he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.”
And here are a few more personal favorites, from works of nonfiction as well as novels, that didn’t make the American Book Review’s list. From The Phantom Tollbooth:
“Well, I would like to make another trip,” he said, jumping to his feet; “but I really don’t know when I’ll have the time. There’s just so much to do right here.”
From The Corrections:
She was seventy-five and she was going to make some changes in her life.
From T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom:
When Feisal had gone, I made to Allenby the last (and also I think the first) request I ever made him for myself—leave to go away. For a while he would not have it; but I reasoned, reminding him of his year-old promise, and pointing out how much easier the New Law would be if my spur were absent from the people. In the end he agreed; and then at once I knew how much I was sorry.
The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.
Of course, even the greatest closing line loses much of its power when taken out of context. Tomorrow, I’m going to be talking about the endings of novels, and how it feels, at least for one novelist, to approach that final moment.