It is my1 intention to write a series of articles, this being the first, that will analyze the works of individual authors—specifically ones that I can readily obtain; hence the title, “Authors On My Bookshelves”. I shall begin with Norton Juster, of whose books I have only owned (or read) one: The Phantom Tollbooth. Though this is a paltry sample with which to critique an author, and there is a dangerous possibility of this essay becoming a book-report, I shall (attempt) to generalize my statements and critique the author, not his book.
Firstly, Norton Juster2 is a Minimalist—not a Minimalist proper, like E. B. White or Ernest Hemingway, but rather a Pseudo-Minimalist, an author who holds to the basic tenets of Minimalism whilst not strictly following its rules; in other words, a typical twentieth-century author. Minimalist prose attempts to be as sparse and straightforward as possible, and Juster’s style—especially his use of adverbs and dialogue-tags—contradicts Minimalism’s stricter rules.
This brings me to Juster’s most serious fault. Though I think the Minimalists overemphasize the dangers of the dialogue-tag, I admit that, when misused, dialogue-tags are unnecessary or even detrimental. A dialogue-tag, to quickly define my term, is any word or phrase used to describe speech. “He said” is its basic form, but it can also be a descriptive verb (“He spluttered”), an adverb (“He said hastily”), or a participle-phrase (“He said, quivering slightly”). The usual argument against embellishing “He said” is that the dialogue itself should indicate the emotion of the speaker, and thus dialogue-tags are at best redundant—and redundancy for a Minimalist is an unpardonable sin. Thus, in a book not known for well-edited prose, a person might read:
“‘Somebody must have taken it!’ Chet exploded.”3
(Note also the unsubtle use of the exclamation-point, a sin Juster also commits.)
As for Juster, a selection taken at random yields:
“‘True enough,’ replied the Mathemagician.”
“‘Be quick about it,’ suggested the Spelling Bee.”
“‘Then, without a doubt,’ Milo concluded brightly.”4
It could be argued that this fits the tone of the book. Juster’s characters are quirky, pompous, and exaggerated, so naturally their dialogue is quirky, pompous, and exaggerated too. But if this is Juster’s intention, he succeeds badly—not only by overuse, but by tastelessness. Let me use two of the above examples. Reading the Spelling Bee’s dialogue alone, especially in context, I imagine him speaking impatiently and somewhat brusquely; with Milo, I might imagine him speaking conclusively, but somewhat proudly, or perhaps thoughtfully. But “Milo concluded brightly” makes Milo sound strangely definite and cheerful, and “suggested the Spelling Bee” makes the Spelling Bee sound uncharacteristically deferential, especially in context. What the Spelling Bee says and how the dialogue-tag describes it are contradictory, and it jars my imagination like the phrase “bright darkness”. At best it sounds pantomimish, like bad voice-acting; at worst it’s as dissonant as a misplayed chord on a piano.
Also, Juster’s style is utilitarian. Some authors delight in words, playing with them like a composer with instruments, delighting in them like an Impressionist with color. Juster simply uses them. However, this is not necessarily a fault. Some artists experiment, and some create with what they have. And anyway, Juster’s imagination is prodigious enough to make artistic prose unnecessary. The world and characters of The Phantom Tollbooth need only the barest description, for they break through the page in their intense vibrancy of existence. But not only does Juster’s imagination transcend his prose, his prose perfectly expresses his imagination. I would write that his imagination can only be expressed in prose, if not for Feiffer’s illustrations. The Phantom Tollbooth is not a story in a book; the story is the book, the medium is the content. This is partly because The Phantom Tollbooth is an allegory, and great allegory must be prose (or poetry) because it is a narrative of ideas. The problem with making Pilgrim’s Progress (or, worse, A Tale of a Tub) a movie is that the book must become concrete, tangible; Christian must become a person, whereas before he was a concept, a representation of every christian man. But furthermore, Juster’s ideas are more abstract than even normal allegory. What does noise look like? How can music be color? These are things that can only be imagined, can only be perceived through words. Even if I am mistaken about the efficacy of the camera, to properly visualize such ideas would require more imagination and skill than any director of which I know.
Which brings me to Juster’s style. Juster is not a painter, he is a sketcher. He does not use mellifluous pastels or broad brushstrokes of paragraph but, like Feiffer, draws everything in quick lines. Juster evokes. If his prose sometimes feels insubstantial, if the world Milo drives through sometimes seems to be a world of blank canvas, that is how it is meant to feel, and that is a virtue, not a vice. But, though Juster is a sketcher, he still has his own moments of word-painting. Actually, he does it often, mostly in dialogue, but also in his descriptions, such as the Dynne’s: “Then, from the bottle, a thick bluish smog spiraled to the ceiling, spread out, and gradually assumed the shape of a thick bluish smog with hands, feet, bright-yellow eyes, and a large frowning mouth.”5. Especially beautiful is the introduction of Rhyme and Reason (“She answered with a laugh as friendly as the mailman’s ring when you know there’s a letter for you.”5), and who can forget The Phantom Tollbooth’s yearningly lyrical final paragraphs? As for dialogue, Chroma’s description of his orchestra5 is the most majestic passage in the book, and is more like blank verse than prose. And besides this, Juster’s prose as a whole moves with precision and never stumbles or trips, unlike many a lesser author’s. So, to summarize: Though he has his faults, and though there are better writers in English, Norton Juster is an excellent craftsman. He knows his technique, and, even without the intense imagination infused within it, his prose is competent and sometimes even beautiful. I would dare to call The Phantom Tollbooth a great work, and, even if only on the basis of one book, Juster an excellent author.
1Submitted, as part of a forthcoming series, by an anonymous author; probably one of our staff, it happens a lot.—Jayson Carlsee, Editor.
2Norton Juster: Author, second-generation architect, and part-time synesthete; born 03/19/29/06/02 to Samuel and Minnie Juster (the former being the first-generation architect). Attended some unimportant school, fought in a World War, and was fun and eccentric all the time. Began writing The Phantom Tollbooth when he was supposed to be writing a book he got a Ford Foundation grant (and quit his job) for. Bribed his roommate (Jules Feiffer) to illustrate it, and, in September of 03/19/61, got it published by Random House. After the book’s tremendous success continued to write (on the side), died on 03/20/21/03/08, and never completed his Ford Foundation assignment.—Jayson Carlsee, Editor.
3From The Hardy Boys: The Flickering Torch Mystery, chapter seven, page sixty. The vision this passage conjures is somewhat different from what the author seems to have intended. For those of you who dislike violence, this is another example, taken from the same page: “‘I’m a goner if I let go,’ Joe thought desperately.”—Jayson Carlsee, Editor.
4From chapter 16, page 201; chapter 7, page 82; and chapter 13, page 167.—Jayson Carlsee, Editor.
5From chapter 11, page 139; chapter 18, page 231; and chapter 10, page 125; respectively. They say that citations were invented to give editors headaches; I dread the rest of the series.—Jayson Carlsee, Editor.