This handsome new edition of the classic children’s fantasy novel The Phantom Tollbooth comes stuffed with extras in the form of various introductions and appreciations, by such intelligent, perceptive, and young-at-heart literary folks as Maurice Sendak, Michael Chabon, and Philip Pullman. These tidbits are all savory. But the real meat of the package remains Juster’s inspired skylarking in the pages of this eternally silly-yet-wise novel, with its pitch-perfect original bramble-bush illustrations by Jules Feiffer. Having an excuse to enjoy this book again, and to introduce it to a new generation of readers, more than justifies investment in a bright, fresh copy!
The novel gets off to a fleet and inveigling start, with a sketchy but precise introduction to our dissatisfied hero, Milo, and the mysterious Phantom Tollbooth, his access to The Lands Beyond. Once across the border in his little toy automobile, Milo finds a plethora of oddness: odd places, odd customs, odd creatures. But what gives these strange things significance and powerful emotional meaning is a dream coherence, a kind of logic beyond logic. They exist not randomly, but according to some alien system whose lineaments lie teasingly just beyond our perceptions. Milo has indeed ventured to a living “subcreation,” to employ Tolkien’s usage. Additionally, of course, all these figures and venues which Milo encounters possess allegorical properties that lend them a subterranean moral gravitas below their surface humor. But this allegorical component never outshines their vibrant existential heft. Likewise, Juster often pauses to ground us sensorily, with such beautiful passages as this one from the opening of Chapter 10:
As they ran, tall trees closed in around them and arched gracefully toward the sky. The late-afternoon sunlight leaped lightly from leaf to leaf, slid along branches and down trunks, and dropped finally to the ground in warm, luminous patches. A soft glow filled the air with the kind of light that made everything look sharp and clear and close enough to reach out and touch.
The plotting is pell-mell, although individual incidents never feel rushed. Each segment of Milo’s adventures is just the right length for what it contains. Juster is a deft enough humorist not to drag out a riff or joke. Moreover, there is a progression of seriousness and importance, from rather inconsequential incidents to a genuine quest (to restore the sisters, Rhyme and Reason). Not to say Juster makes no allowance for enjoyable detours, such as to the Island of Conclusions, surrounded by the Sea of Knowledge. Milo’s quest is both aleatory and drawn by a strange attractor.
Fans and critics cite Carroll’s Alice books as a model for Tollbooth. True enough, in the same way that you and I are indeed ultimately descended from Lucy the Australopithecus afarensis. But there are many more immediate sources for Juster’s book. The Little Prince. James Thurber’s YA fantasies. And above all, the Oz mythos. What is Juster’s Humbug, for instance, if not an avatar of Baum’s Professor T. E. Wogglebug? And Juster’s vast influence would flood out downstream as well — think Piers Anthony and Walter Moers — and even into other media. No Yellow Submarine or Nilsson’s The Point without Tollbooth.
To me, the prime evil which Juster is fighting in his tale is solipsism: egocentricity and narcissism run rampant. Note how Milo is initially walled off from life and from others. Similarly, the monomaniacal folks in The Lands Beyond all have their hobbyhorses they ride, unable to relate or listen to anyone else. “‘My goodness,’ thought Milo, ‘everybody is so terribly sensitive about the things they know best.’” Queerly enough, when mysterious workmen arise out of nowhere and disassemble the palace of King Azaz, it recalls an identical scene from Robert Heinlein’s masterpiece of solipsism, “They,” which ends with the dismantling of New York City and Harvard University as unneeded stagesets. It’s only when Milo listens to Rhyme and Reason that he changes: “Whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, if even in the tiniest way.”
Once consciously integrated into the cosmos, Milo is made whole. What a lesson! And served up with plenty of outrageously silly puns as well!
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.