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A Very Mixed Bag -- Really Misses Its Potential...
on September 13, 2002
In writing this review, I can't help being reminded of a passage out of C. S. Lewis' "Prince Caspian" -- namely, the single combat. The Bulgy Bear sits at one corner, sucking its paws and looking silly; at the other corner, the centaur Glenstorm paws at the ground imposingly.
Such a mixed reaction surely sums up my response to this book!
It is galling to have to criticize a book which so many other people have so highly praised; but then, I must say what I think is true. And the truth, as I see it, is that "The Phantom Tollbooth" is a book which simply misses its potential.
Frankly, I have some VERY mixed feelings about "The Phantom Tollbooth". It certainly BEGINS promisingly enough, starting off in true "Fairy-Tale" fashion -- a mundane setting (an ordinary boy living in an ordinary city and in an ordinary apartment building) which quickly turns to a fantastic setting -- a strange, Wonderland-type world filled with odd creatures and even odder experiences. A promising beginning, indeed!
But although the book is very witty, it is also extremely silly. I must suppose that Norton Juster (the author) thought that he was being FUNNY. Maybe he was; but there IS such a thing as "too much", and this is, alas, a boundary which he crosses far too soon. This is tragic, because the book manages, in certain places, to be quite profound, and even downright allegorical.
For example, when Milo et al. swim back from the Isle of Conclusions (to which they have inopportunely Jumped), they all emerge soaking wet, except for The Humbug. A quick glance at the map printed on the endpapers reveals that the body of water that they have just crossed is nothing more or less than a branch of the Sea of Knowledge -- allegorically, therefore, their "being soaked" (i.e., having "absorbed knowledge") simply means that they have learned from the experience. On the other hand, The Humbug (who, you will remember, comes out "perfectly dry") has learned nothing whatsoever!
Unfortunately, such brilliance is horribly overshadowed.... The endless cliches and repeated wordplays soon descend, first to farce, and then to idiocy. (The Spelling Bee reminds me of those stupid "Lingo" commercials on The Game Show Network.) The book DOES have an important message to convey, but I found it VERY hard to take seriously, or to have much respect for, a book which clearly had so low an opinion of itself. The younger children, of course, won't notice this; and if you're an older child in a mood for farce, you'll find this a VERY entertaining tale; but if you are (like me) an older reader of a more thoughtful stripe, you'll soon find this book very wearisome reading. A waste of good potential, indeed! (Sorry!) :(