Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Is it Catch-22…or The Phantom Tollbooth?

with 2 comments

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 books, 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?

  1. Since he had nothing better to do well in, he did well in school.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Each man looked very much like the other, and some looked even more like each other than they did like themselves.
  5. 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.
  6. “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?”
  7. “I’d give everything I own to him. But since I don’t own everything, I can’t give everything to him, can I?”
  8. “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.”
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. “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.”
  13. 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.”
  14. “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.”
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. “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.”
  19. 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.
  20. “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.”
  21. “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.”
  22. “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.”
  23. 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.
  24. 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.)

Written by nevalalee

October 13, 2011 at 11:10 am

2 Responses

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  1. I believe at some point I tried to make a joke about an academic named Dean Dean Dean. Hrm.


    October 13, 2011 at 11:16 am

  2. How about Judge Judge Judge? (Although Arrested Development may have gotten there first.)


    October 13, 2011 at 11:22 am

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