In a restaurant, kids in tow, I’ll ask the waitress,”Is the Greek in the Greek salad real or imitation?” My kids roll their eyes. I’ll tell kids, “I’m built backward: My nose runs and my feet smell.” Again, more eye rolling.
So you’d think Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth” would be right up my alley. It’s filled with puns and one-lines and long setups for bad punchlines. But no.
I’ve just finished the Classics Challenge 2015 (and at 3 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, not too soon) by reading a book by an author I’ve not read before. This book also fits the category of a book by an author I’ll not read again, too.
“Tollbooth” isn’t bad. Really. But I do wonder about its appeal. Perhaps it’s that I’ve heard so many great things about the book over the years. Or perhaps it has such a great opening line: “There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself—not just sometimes, but always.” Anyway, it didn’t live up to its reputation.
Milo, suffering from a serious case of pre-adolescent ennui, discovers a tollbooth in his overstuffed bedroom. As someone bored by everything, he rolls his eyes and says: “OK, let’s see what this is all about.”
He is taken to lands beyond his imagination filled with people and creatures that are pretty amazing. He sails the Sea of Knowledge, visits The Doldrums, jumps to the island Conclusions and more. He’s helped by a watchdog named Tock, a dog that is literally a watch, and a Humbug, an insect that constantly spouts nonsense. There’s also the Spelling Bee, who spells its words, rather irritatingly.
Along the way they meet Faintly Macabre, someone who is kind of scary, and Short Shrift, a small, squat policeman who puts him in jail for 6 million years and witches and wizards. They’re all caught up in the feud between the King of Words and the King of Numbers who last agreed upon one thing: Expel the princesses Rhyme and Reason from both their kingdoms. Milo discovers that everything will be put right when Rhyme and Reason return, so he goes off in search of them.
At the end, as you can guess from the opening line, Milo finds value in the everyday and has a new outlook on life. Nice message, but it feels like the punchline at the end of a long shaggy dog story.
This search for Rhyme and Reason becomes the very slight plot on which Juster hangs his puns, double entendres and silliness. It doesn’t start until more than 100 pages into the novel, so it takes patience to get there. It takes patience, too, to finish.
This book suffers from the same thing Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and, to a lesser extent, “The Neverending Story” do: Too much silliness for silliness’ sake. Without a coherent plot, it’s hard to invest any feeling into it. And for a book aimed at kids, the amount of puns that would have to be explained, would make it a tough go.
But I can see the appeal for those who get it, and who love the way Juster plays with language. I just don’t know many kids like that, and I wasn’t one.
Think of it as 257 pages of dad jokes. With great drawings by Jules Feiffer.
Watch out, waitresses. I’ve got a whole new load of ammunition.