Monday, June 15, 2015

Book Review: "The Phantom Tollbooth" by Norton Juster

In 2013, I read both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, which were written by Lewis Carroll and told of the unexpected journeys Alice made to Wonderland and the many abnormal, but perfectly normal sights she saw and experiences she endured. Almost one hundred years later, Norton Juster wrote what it almost closer to these adventures that to any other work of literature with The Phantom Tollbooth. Surprisingly, Juster possesses the ability to break away from the master absurdism created by Carroll and instead allowing central character Milo to participate in a new world with more organized conflicts, but at the same time defining the organization of these conflicts remains immensely debatable. The Phantom Tollbooth questions the thought process of humanity and prioritizes its need to address what the common individual ignores and places it at the forefront, creating a world that works against what most people see as logic in favor of what they see as being logical.

The novel begins with Milo becoming bored with life and seeing purposelessness in the world around him. On one afternoon, a tollbooth appears in his bedroom. Upon entry, he goes in, pays the fee, and is in a car that is driving through a completely different universe. He is teamed up by a dog that functions as a clock by the name of Tock when visiting the Doldrums. Here, people possess no purpose in life and spend their days napping and loafing around, since thinking and actually making a purpose out of life are prohibited. Tock serves as their watchdog and guides Milo to his next destination and beyond. Milo pays a visit to Dictionopolis, a country that is dominated by words, and meets five tall gentlemen that all say the same thing in a different way, the Spelling Bee, that spells at least one thing that he says, the Humbug, who is the Spelling Bee's rival, King Azaz, among so many others. Dictionopolis is at conflict with Digitopolis, which is the country dominated by numbers and ruled by the Mathemagician. A major conflict has occurred that has left the two countries to the point that they have become bitter enemies. This is aggravated and ultimately sealed with the imprisonment of Rhyme and Reason, two princesses, in the Castle in the Air. Milo is sent on a mission, with Tock and the Humbug, to rescue these princesses in order to restore hope for their world. Milo makes his way through Digitopolis, where he meets the Mathemagician, Alec Bings, Chroma the Great (the conductor of the color symphony), Dr. Dischord, among others. As Milo makes his way through these lands on his mission, he learns plenty in what develops its moral to what Juster expects to come out of this work.

I really enjoyed the story of Milo's adventures and the different cast of characters that came about throughout the novel. I thought those that Milo came across in the places he went were a hysterical, absurdist batch of characters. In essence, they possess a face value, but one should not jump to conclusions when making an attempt to figure out the rest of their making. For instance, Officer Shrift holds an interest in putting people in prison and locking them away for millions of years. What conclusion would you make about Officer Shrift? The answer could be found as you read through the text. There is also the predicament of eating when you are full and eating until you are hungry and the process of eating your words. The Phantom Tollbooth goes to great measures in being the best absurdist work that it could possibly be, much of which is in the style of Lewis Carroll.

My criticism can be directed toward the strength of his sidekicks and the pacing of the novel. I thought Tock was a likeable character and the Humbug was meant to serve as the comic relief, but there was only so much depth to their characters. We get a decent idea of their purpose, but it is almost as if they are only there so that Milo is not going on this journey alone. I felt that in a way, this novel could have been written so that Milo spent more time alone on this journey and the finished product would be just as good. Alice moved from place to place alone on her expedition and she still had quite the adventure. Perhaps Juster did not want to copy off this idea and seek too many similarities. As for the pacing, it is almost as if the moments of action and intensity just zipped by in order to provide greater background to the individuals Milo met on his journey. I feel that both could have been done in order to build to the novel. Fortunately, the fact that it is a children's novel, suited for the 8-12 age range and not much younger, allows the text to take a more bumpy flow. To those in the right age range, they will be satisfied with the content and not worry about the details of the piece. As for the age, which I just briefly mentioned, those that are younger than eight will likely become confused with the material and the way that it is worded. I guess using a familiar, but difficult word like "vegetable" is reasonable when the Spelling Bee asked Milo to think of a difficult word for him to spell. My newsletter editor back in high school likes to stump people with the word "supersede" when he puts together games for his Critical Thinking class. Doing this is a clever strategy in drawing the community younger than eight into the rest of the story. The question is whether or not it will hold their interest.

The Phantom Tollbooth is an adventure very absurd, but at the same time backed up by a magnificent argument. Milo comes across different types of creatures and individuals that make no sense to the common individual, but possess an ability to convey that the same can be said about the common individual. Its message, while not outdoing Lewis Carroll in its use of absurdism, makes a case in why its readers are going to have a heyday in their minds as this shakes and stretches it like a piece of Silly Putty. To those that are eager to read something new or like the material at hand should really check this out. The audience that comes into this novel will truly get something out of it!

Verdict: 8/10

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