Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘In Search of Lost Time

The castle on the keyboard

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In March, the graphic artist Susan Kare, who is best known for designing the fonts and icons for the original Apple Macintosh, was awarded a medal of recognition from the professional organization AIGA. It occurred to me to write a post about her work, but when I opened a gallery of her designs, I found myself sidetracked by an unexpected sensation. I felt happy. Looking at those familiar images—the Paintbrush, the Trash Can, even the Bomb—brought me as close as I’ve come in a long time to what Proust describes after taking a bite of the madeleine in the first volume of In Search of Lost Time:

Just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on color and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognizable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden…and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

In my case, it wasn’t a physical location that blossomed into existence, but a moment in my life that I’ve tried repeatedly to evoke here before. I was in my early teens, which isn’t a great period for anyone, and I can’t say that I was content. But for better or worse, I was becoming whatever I was supposed to be, and throughout much of that process, Kare’s icons provided the inescapable backdrop.

You could argue that nostalgia for computer hardware is a fairly recent phenomenon that will repeat itself in later generations, with children who are thirteen or younger today feeling equally sentimental toward devices that their parents regard with indifference—and you might be right. But I think that Kare’s work is genuinely special in at least two ways. One is that it’s a hallmark of perhaps the last time in history when a personal computer could feel like a beguiling toy, rather than an indispensable but utilitarian part of everyday life. The other is that her icons, with their handmade look and origins, bear the impression of another human being’s personality in ways that would all but disappear within a few years. As Alexandra Lange recounts in a recent profile of Kare:

In 1982, [Kare] was a sculptor and sometime curator when her high-school friend Andy Hertzfeld asked her to create graphics for a new computer that he was working on in California. Kare brought a Grid notebook to her job interview at Apple Computer. On its pages, she had sketched, in pink marker, a series of icons to represent the commands that Hertzfeld’s software would execute. Each square represented a pixel. A pointing finger meant “Paste.” A paintbrush symbolized “MacPaint.” Scissors said “Cut.” Kare told me about this origin moment: “As soon as I started work, Andy Hertzfeld wrote an icon editor and font editor so I could design images and letterforms using the Mac, not paper,” she said. “But I loved the puzzle-like nature of working in sixteen-by-sixteen and thirty-two-by-thirty-two pixel icon grids, and the marriage of craft and metaphor.”

That same icon editor, or one of its successors, was packaged with the Mac that I used, and I vividly remember clicking on that grid myself, shaping the building blocks of the interface in a way that seems hard to imagine now.

And Kare seems to have valued these aspects of her work even at the time. There’s a famous series of photos of her in a cubicle at Apple in 1984, leaning back in her chair with one New Balance sneaker propped against her desk, looking impossibly cool. In one of the pictures, if you zoom in on the shelf of books behind her, it’s possible to make out a few titles, including the first edition of Symbol Sourcebook by Henry Dreyfuss, with an introduction by none other than R. Buckminster Fuller. Kare has spoken highly of this book elsewhere, most notably in an interview with Alex Pang of Stanford, to whom she explained:

One of my favorite parts of the book is its list of hobo signals, that hobos used to contact each other when they were on the road. They look like they’re in chalk on stones…When you’re desperate for an idea—some icons, like the piece of paper, are no problem; but others defy the visual, like “undo”—you look at things like hobo signs. Like this: “Man with a gun lives here.” Now, I can’t say that anything in this book is exactly transported into the Macintosh interface, but I think I got a lot of help from this, just thinking. This kind of symbol appeals to me because it had to be really simple, and clear to a group of people who were not going to be studying these for years in academia. I don’t understand a lot of them—“These people are rich” is a top hat and a triangle—but I always had that at Apple. I still use it, and I’m grateful for it.

And it seems likely that this was the “symbol dictionary” in which Kare discovered the Bowen Knot, a symbol once used to indicate “interesting features” at Swedish campgrounds, which lives on as the Command icon on the Mac.

According to Kare, the Bowen Knot originally represented a castle with four turrets, and if you’re imaginative enough, you can imagine it springing into being from the keys to either side of the space bar, like the village from Proust’s teacup. Like the hobo signs, Kare’s icons are a system of signals left to those who might pass by in the future, and the fact that they’ve managed to survive at Apple in even a limited way is something of a miracle in itself. (As the tech journalist Mike Murphy recently wrote: “For whatever reason, Apple looks and acts far more like a luxury brand than a consumer-technology brand in 2018.” And there isn’t much room in that business for castles or hobo signs.) When you click through the emulated versions of the earliest models of the Macintosh on the Internet Archive, it can feel like a temporary return to those values, or like a visit to a Zen garden. Yet if we only try to recapture it, we miss the point. Toward the end of In Search of Lost Time, Proust experiences a second moment of revelation, when he stumbles in a courtyard and catches himself “on a flagstone lower than the one next it,” which reminds him of a similar sensation that he had once felt at the Baptistry of St. Mark in Venice. And what he says of this flash of insight reminds me of how I feel when I look at the Happy Mac, and all the possibilities that it once seemed to express:

As at the moment when I tasted the madeleine, all my apprehensions about the future, all my intellectual doubts, were dissipated. Those doubts which had assailed me just before, regarding the reality of my literary gifts and even regarding the reality of literature itself were dispersed as though by magic…Merely repeating the movement was useless; but if…I succeeded in recapturing the sensation which accompanied the movement, again the intoxicating and elusive vision softly pervaded me, as though it said, “Grasp me as I float by you, if you can, and try to solve the enigma of happiness I offer you.”

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June 15, 2018 at 8:50 am

The number nine

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Note: This post reveals plot details from last night’s episode of Twin Peaks.

One of the central insights of my life as a reader is that certain kinds of narrative are infinitely expansible or contractible. I first started thinking about this in college, when I was struggling to read Homer in Greek. Oral poetry, I discovered, wasn’t memorized, but composed on the fly, aided by the poet’s repertoire of stock lines, formulas, and images that happened to fit the meter. This meant that the overall length of the composition was highly variable. A scene that takes up just a few lines in the Iliad that survives could be expanded into an entire night’s recital, based on what the audience wanted to hear. (For instance, the characters of Crethon and Orsilochus, who appear for only twenty lines in the existing version before being killed by Aeneas, might have been the stars of the evening if the poet happened to be working in Pherae.) That kind of flexibility originated as a practical consequence of the oral form, but it came to affect the aesthetics of the poem itself, which could grow or shrink to accommodate anything that the poet wanted to talk about. Homer uses his metaphors to introduce miniature narratives of human life that don’t otherwise fit into a poem of war, and some amount to self-contained short stories in themselves. Proust operates in much the same way. One observation leads naturally to another, and an emotion or analogy evoked in passing can unfold like a paper flower into three dense pages of reflections. In theory, any novel could be expanded like this, like a hypertext that opens into increasingly deeper levels. In Search of Lost Time happens to be the one book in existence in which all of these flowerings have been preserved, with a plot could fit into a novella of two hundred unhurried pages.

Something similar appears to have happened with the current season of Twin Peaks, and when you start to think of it in those terms, its structure, which otherwise seems almost perversely shapeless, begins to make more sense. In the initial announcement by Showtime, the revival was said to consist of nine episodes, and Mark Frost even said to Buzzfeed:

If you think back about the first season, if you put the pilot together with the seven that we did, you get nine hours. It just felt like the right number. I’ve always felt the story should take as long as the story takes to tell. That’s what felt right to us.

It was doubled to eighteen after a curious interlude in which David Lynch dropped out of the project, citing budget constraints: “I left because not enough money was offered to do the script the way I felt it needed to be done.” He came back, of course, and shortly thereafter, it was revealed that the length of the season had increased. Yet there was never any indication that either Lynch or Frost had done any additional writing. My personal hunch is that they always had nine episodes of material, and this never changed. What happened is that the second act of the show expanded in the fashion that I’ve described above, creating a long central section that was free to explore countless byways without much concern for the plot. The beginning, and presumably the end, remained more or less as conceived—it was the middle that grew. And a quick look at the structure of the season so far seems to confirm this. The first three episodes, which take Cooper from inside the Black Lodge to slightly before his meeting with his new family in Las Vegas, seemed weird at the time, but now they look positively conventional in terms of how much story they covered. They were followed by three episodes, the Dougie Jones arc, that were expanded beyond recognition. And now that we’ve reached the final three, which account for the third act of the original outline, it makes sense for Cooper to return at last.

If the season had consisted of just those nine episodes, I suspect that more viewers would have been able to get behind it. Even if the second act had doubled in length—giving us a total of twelve installments, of which three would have been devoted to detours and loose ends—I doubt that most fans would have minded. It’s expanding that middle section to four times its size, without any explanation, that lost a lot of people. But it’s clearly the only way that Lynch would have returned. For most of the last decade, Lynch has been contentedly pottering around with odd personal projects, concentrating on painting, music, digital video, and other media that don’t require him to be answerable to anyone but himself. The Twin Peaks revival, after the revised terms had been negotiated with Showtime, allowed him to do this with a larger budget and for a vastly greater audience. Much of this season has felt like Lynch’s private sketchbook or paintbox, allowing him to indulge himself within each episode as long as the invisible scaffolding of the original nine scripts remained. The fact that so much of the strangeness of this season has been visual and nonverbal points to Lynch, rather than Frost, as the driving force on this end. And at its best, it represents something like a reinvention of television, which is the most expandable or compressible medium we have, but which has rarely utilized this quality to its full extent. (There’s an opening here, obviously, for a fan edit that condenses the season down to nine episodes, leaving the first and last three intact while shrinking the middle twelve. It would be an interesting experiment, although I’m not sure I’d want to watch it.)

Of course, this kind of aggressive attack on the structure of the narrative doesn’t come without a cost. In the case of Twin Peaks, the primary casualty has been the Dougie Jones storyline, which has been criticized for three related reasons. The first, and most understandable, is that we’re naturally impatient to get the old Cooper back. Another is that this material was never meant to go on for this long, and it starts to feel a little thin when spread over twelve episodes. And the third is that it prevents Kyle MacLachlan, the ostensible star of the show, from doing what he does best. This last criticism feels like the most valid. MacLachlan has played an enormous role in my life as a moviegoer and television viewer, but he operates within a very narrow range, with what I might inadequately describe as a combination of rectitude, earnestness, and barely concealed eccentricity. (In other words, it’s all but indistinguishable from the public persona of David Lynch himself.) It’s what made his work as Jeffrey in Blue Velvet so moving, and a huge part of the appeal of Twin Peaks lay in placing this character at the center of what looked like a procedural. MacLachlan can also convey innocence and darkness, but by bringing these two traits to the forefront, and separating them completely in Dougie and Dark Cooper, it robs us of the amalgam that makes MacLachlan interesting in the first place. Like many stars, he’s chafed under the constraints of his image, and perhaps he even welcomed the challenges that this season presented—although he may not have known how his performance would look when extended past its original dimensions and cut together with the rest. When Cooper returned last night, it reminded me of how much I’ve missed him. And the fact that we’ll get him for two more episodes, along with everything else that this season has offered us, feels more than ever like a gift.

Written by nevalalee

August 28, 2017 at 9:17 am

My ten great books #2: In Search of Lost Time

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In Search of Lost Time

The best advice I’ve found for approaching this enormous, daunting book is Roger Shattuck’s observation, in his useful study Proust’s Way, that Marcel Proust’s most immediate precursor is Scheherazade, the legendary author of The Thousand and One Nights. In Search of Lost Time has less in common with the novels that we usually read than with the volumes of myths and fairy tales that we devour in childhood, and it might seem more accessible to the readers who currently find it bewildering if, as Shattuck suggests, it had been titled The Parisian Nights. Proust is a teller of tales, and like Homer, his work is infinitely expansible. An exchange that lasts for a few lines in an oral epic like The Iliad could have been expanded—as it probably was for certain audiences—into an entire evening’s performance, and Homer deploys his metaphors to introduce miniature narratives of human life that don’t otherwise fit into a poem of war. Proust operates in much the same way. One observation leads naturally to another, and an emotion or analogy evoked in passing can unfold like a paper flower into three dense pages of reflections. In theory, any good novel could be expanded like this, like a hypertext that opens into increasingly intimate levels: In Search of Lost Time happens to be the only book in existence in which all of these flowerings have been preserved. Its plot could fit into a novella of two hundred unhurried pages, but we don’t read Proust for the plot, even if he knows more about suspense and surprise than you might expect. His digressions are the journey, and the result is the richest continuous slice of a great writer’s mind that a work of fiction can afford.

And the first thing that you notice about Proust, once you’ve lived in his head for long enough, is that he has essential advice and information to share about everything under the sun. Proust is usually associated with the gargantuan twin themes of memory and time, and although these are crucial threads, they’re only part of a tapestry that gradually expands to cover all human life. At first, it seems a little unfair that our greatest writer on the subject of sexual jealousy should also be a genius at describing, say, a seascape, as well as a mine of insight into such diverse areas as art, class, childhood, travel, death, homosexuality, architecture, poetry, the theater, and how milk looks when it’s about to boil over, while also peopling his work with vivid characters and offering up a huge amount of incidental gossip and social reportage. When you look at it from another angle, though, it seems inevitable. Proust is the king of noticing, and he’s the author who first awakened me to the fact that a major novelist should be able to treat any conceivable topic with the same level of artistic and intellectual acuity. His only rival here is Shakespeare, but with a difference. Plays like Hamlet speak as much in their omissions and silences, leaving us to fill in the gaps. Proust, by contrast, says everything—it’s all there on the page for anyone who wants to unpack it—and you can’t emerge without being subtly changed by the experience. Like Montaigne, Proust gives us words to express thoughts and feelings that we’ve always had, and if you read him deeply enough, you inevitably reach a point where you realize that this novel, which seemed to be about everything else in the world, has been talking about you all along.

Written by nevalalee

May 9, 2017 at 9:00 am

Making it long

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In Search of Lost Time

Along with giving up movies and music, another consequence of becoming a new father is that I’ve found it increasingly hard to read long novels. Earlier this year, I started Infinite Jest for the first time, but I trailed off after a few hundred pages, not because I wasn’t enjoying it—I liked it a lot—but because it was becoming all but impossible for me to carve adequate reading time out of the limited hours in the day. Since then, I’ve read a lot of nonfiction, mostly for research, and a few shorter novels on the order of John D. MacDonald, but when I look at some of the larger volumes on my bookshelf, I feel a little daunted. I’m not sure when I’m going to have time for Life: A User’s Manual or The Tunnel or The Recognitions or any of the other big novels I bought years ago in full intention of reading them eventually. And although it’s possible that this year will turn out to be a fluke, it’s more likely that my reading life, like so many other things, has undergone a decisive shift. (Even my old trick of reading a big book on vacation may no longer work: it’s hard to balance Underworld in your hands when there’s also a baby strapped to your chest.)

Which is a shame, because I love big novels. This may sound strange coming from a writer who constantly preaches the values of cutting, but I can only report the facts: of the ten favorite novels I discussed here recently, fully half of them—In Search of Lost Time, The Magic Mountain, Gravity’s Rainbow, It, Foucault’s Pendulum—are enormous by any standard. I enjoy long novels for many of the same reasons it’s hard for me to read them these days: their sheer size forces you to give up a significant chunk of your life, and the psychic space they occupy can change the way you think, at least temporarily. When I first read Proust, there were moments when I felt that the events of the novel were objectively more real than anything I was doing at the time, which is something I suspect most readers of big books have experienced. Reading an enormous novel can start to feel like a second job, or an uncredited college class, or a stranger living in your house, especially once you’re been at it for a while. I spent something like a decade picking at The Gold-Bug Variations before finally finishing it, and even though I have mixed feelings about the novel itself, the emotions it evokes are still vivid, if only because it was a part of my life for so long.

Lawrence of Arabia

And length can affect the content of the novel itself in unexpected ways. Edward Mendelson, in his famous essay on encyclopedic narratives, notes that many of these big, insane books—Gargantua and Pantagruel, Moby-Dick—deal with literal or figurative giants, as if the novel is conducting a narrative battle with its own bulk, like Don Quixote fighting the windmill. This also runs in the opposite direction: a subject like a white whale deserves a whale of a novel. Even in books that tackle more intimate themes, length can be a statement or strategy in itself. I’ve noted before that In Search of Lost Time is both a modern version of The Thousand and One Nights and a novelette that expands itself infinitely in all directions, like a Japanese paper flower dropped in water, and it needs to unfold over multiple volumes: we might be able to abridge Dumas or Hugo, but an abridged version of Proust would be a contradiction in terms. Its length isn’t just a consequence of a longer series of events or a more complicated story, but a philosophy of life, or of reading, that can only find its full expression in the span of pages that a long novel provides.

We find much the same thing in other works of art, particularly movies. William Goldman says that if you can’t tell a story in an hour and fifty minutes, you’d better be David Lean, and even then, you don’t know if you’re going to get Lawrence of Arabia or Ryan’s Daughter. Really long movies tend toward the grandiose, as if its ambitions were expanding simultaneously in space and time, but certain stories, regardless of scale, need that room to breathe: I wouldn’t want to lose a minute of Seven Samurai or Barry Lyndon or Yi Yi. And there’s something about a long movie that encourages a different kind of contemplation. As Roger Ebert notes in his review of the six-hour Little Dorrit:

Very long films can create a life of their own. We lose our moorings. We don’t know exactly where we stand within the narrative, and so we can’t guess what will happen next. People appear and reappear, grow older and die, and we accept the rhythm of the story rather than requiring it to be speeded up.

Hence a movie like Shoah, whose nine-hour runtime becomes a part of its message: its quiet, systematic accumulation of detail begins to feel like the only valid response to the monstrousness of the story it tells. Length, at its best, can represent a vision of the world, and it can feel as big as the world itself—as long as we give it the attention it deserves.

Tomorrow: Keeping it short.

My ten great books #2: In Search of Lost Time

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In Search of Lost Time

(Note: For the rest of the month, I’m counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author and reader, in order of their first publication. For earlier entries in the series, please see here.) 

The best clue I’ve found for understanding the work of Marcel Proust is Roger Shattuck’s observation, in his useful study Proust’s Way, that the author’s most immediate precursor is Scheherazade, the legendary author of The Thousand and One Nights. In Search of Lost Time has less in common with the novels we’re used to reading than the volumes of myths and fairy tales we devour in childhood, and I suspect that it would seem more accessible to the many readers who currently find it bewildering if, as Shattuck suggests, it had been called The Parisian Nights. Proust is a teller of tales, and like Homer, his work is infinitely expansible: an exchange that lasts for two lines in an oral epic like The Iliad could have been expanded—as it probably was for certain audiences—into an entire evening’s performance, and Homer uses his metaphors to introduce miniature narratives of human life that don’t otherwise fit into a poem of war. Proust operates in much the same way. One observation leads naturally to another, and an emotion or metaphor evoked in passing can unfold into three pages of reflections. In theory, any good novel could be expanded like this, like a hypertext that opens into increasingly intimate levels: In Search of Lost Time happens to be the only book in existence in which all of these flowerings have been preserved. Its plot could fit into a novella of two hundred unhurried pages, but we don’t read Proust for the plot, even if he knows more about suspense and surprise than you might intially expect. His digressions are the journey, and the result is the richest uninterrupted slice of a great writer’s mind that a work of fiction has afforded.

And the first thing you notice about Proust, once you’ve lived in his head for long enough, is that he has essential advice and information to share with us about everything under the sun. Proust is usually associated with the great twin themes of memory and time, and although these are crucial threads, they’re only part of a tapestry that gradually expands to cover all aspects of human life. At first, it seems a little unfair that our greatest writer on the subject of sexual jealousy and obsession should also be a genius at describing, say, a seascape, not to mention a mine of insight into such diverse areas as art, class, childhood, travel, death, homosexuality, architecture, poetry, the theater, and how milk looks when it’s about to boil over, while also peopling his work with memorable characters and offering up a huge amount of incidental gossip and social reportage. When you look at it from another angle, though, it seems inevitable. Proust is the king of noticing, and he’s the author who first awakened me to the fact that a great novelist should be able to treat any conceivable topic with the same artistic and intellectual acuity. His only rival here is Shakespeare, but with a difference. Plays like Hamlet speak as much in their omissions and silences, leaving us to fill in the gaps. Proust, by contrast, says everything—it’s all there on the page for anyone who wants to unpack it—and you can’t emerge without being subtly changed by the experience. Like Montaigne, Proust gives us words to express thoughts and feelings we’ve always had, and if you read him deeply, you inevitably reach a point where you realize that this novel, which seemed to be about everything in the world, has been talking about you all along.

Written by nevalalee

September 24, 2013 at 9:00 am

The edge of the canvas

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The Mystery of Picasso, Part 2

In my senior year in college, I took a course on studio painting. For a classics major who had no serious aspirations for a career in art, it was a fairly random choice, and I suspect that I may have been motivated by the sense that my undergraduate years were ending with too many avenues left unexplored. I was lucky to get in all: the course was open to perhaps twenty students, and we had to audition by executing a painting on the spot in black and white acrylic. I’ve always been a decent sketcher and amateur artist, so I made the cut, but I quickly discovered that I wasn’t meant to be a painter. At some point, I hit a wall on how much progress I could make, and although my instructor predicted that I could produce respectable work once I managed to break through, it never really happened. (Based on some of my written assignments, he did say I’d make a good art critic, and although that isn’t the way my life ultimately went, I’d like to think that it had some impact on the stories I ended up writing.)

But I enjoyed the class enormously, largely because of the technical and practical insights it afforded. I’d never done much in the way of work with my hands, so I particularly liked the process of stretching canvases. There was a woodshop at the Carpenter Center that we could use to cut stretchers to size, and I loved wielding the table saw and pneumatic nail gun, as well as the pliers and staples that we used to stretch the canvas itself. You have to staple part of it, then pull the rest tight, followed by several applications of thick gesso with repeated strokes of the knife, and my proudest moment was probably when the instructor used my prepared canvas as an example for the other students. (I believe his exact words were: “You can all hate Alec now.”) My experience here—and my subsequent dismantling of a semester’s worth of paintings, which I rolled up and brought with me to New York—later informed the chapter in The Icon Thief in which Ilya takes apart a painting for easier transport. And it also taught me some valuable lessons about the act of creation itself.

The Mystery of Picasso, Part 6

More than anything else, I came away with an understanding of how a painting is a snapshot of a process that takes place in time. I’d already learned much of this from Clouzot’s great movie The Mystery of Picasso, which uses stop-motion photography to show the remarkable evolution of Picasso’s canvases in the studio: figures are added or subtracted, the style moves from representational to expressionistic and back again, and the entire composition is successively destroyed and rebuilt. After a certain point, you realize that one of an artist’s most crucial creative choices is knowing when to stop. A painting can be refined and toyed with indefinitely, and if you’re not satisfied, you can always add another layer. These stages are usually invisible in the finished work, but you can occasionally see them on the edge of the canvas, which stands as a geological record of each stratum of work. For a while, I went through a pretentious phase in which I would check out the edges of the canvases in galleries, and I always felt a quiet satisfaction when I noticed a thin line of cadmium red that hinted at some earlier, hidden chapter in the painting’s history.

And the result has shaped the way I think about literary art as well. At the moment, I’m reworking a novel that I began writing more than seven years ago, and although the current manuscript is pretty tight, you can still catch glimpses of the older, messier version that lurks beneath it, visible even after fifty drafts. What used to be an entire subplot has been condensed to a paragraph; a sentence that had one meaning in the original narrative now plays another role entirely, even as it lingers on as a vestigial remnant of the story that used to be there. I’d like to believe that I see similar traces in the works of other writers: Infinite Jest, for instance, contains lines that feel like artifacts of an earlier draft, one more openly indebted to Pynchon, and you can see a similar form of accretion in the last, unrevised volume of In Search of Lost Time, in which a character said to be dead in one chapter turns up alive in the next. Every work of narrative art is a snapshot, often taken at a time enforced by deadlines, mortality, or artistic exhaustion, and although it presents itself to the viewer as a unified whole, you can often pick out its earlier incarnations just by looking at the edge.

Written by nevalalee

June 26, 2013 at 8:50 am

The Phantom Tollbooth and the Terrible Trivium

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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:

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