On the back of that wind, my brain rose and skipped and tumbled far beyond the boundaries of any quarantine.
The Phantom Tollbooth
I started thinking about Milo this past March. Milo is The Phantom Tollbooth’s blankly sensible boy hero whose boredom kicks the story off—boredom or clinical depression, depending on how you read it. “It seemed a great wonder that the world, which was so large, could sometimes feel so small and empty,” Milo thinks glumly on page 2. To him, there is nothing worth doing and nowhere worth seeing; even so, he plays along when a mysterious tollbooth and map detailing “the Lands Beyond” arrives in the mail with a card that says only, “For Milo, who has plenty of time.”
I didn’t consider Milo depressed when I read the book in childhood. I didn’t know what it felt like to have too much time and nothing satisfactory to do with it. Quarantines were for zombie movies I wouldn’t see for another ten years. When Milo drove his electric toy car through the tollbooth and found himself trundling suddenly along a country road far beyond the confines of his apartment, I felt nothing but elation. His bleak perspective faded away in the rearview mirror.
By my estimation, I’ve read The Phantom Tollbooth thirty-six times. This is assuming, quite practically, that I began at age eight and read it once every year since then, taking into account the years I read it twice and crafting an average. The pages of my copy are wrinkled by bathwater and stained by tomato-sauce splashes. You can find a spider’s squashed remains on page 78.
Tollbooth played a prominent role in my wanting to write, something that is probably true of many writers. I recall the particular thrill of Jules Feiffer’s scratchy pen illustration at the beginning of my favorite section: an entire kingdom with castle towers and billowing flags tucked neatly inside four city walls, and Milo’s tiny car approaching from the ether. He is headed toward Dictionopolis, the kingdom of words, the first mainstay on his journey through the Lands Beyond. Juster may have been an architect, but the word kingdom is explored for six chapters and the numbers domain (Digitopolis) for only three—so draw your own conclusions about which thing he loved best.
Dictionopolis presented kid-me with dozens of new words to roll around inside my mouth and brain (balderdash! mirage! famine!). The book is chock-full of joyful puns and wordplay—a kindly old “Which,” initially feared as a witch, introduces herself to Milo as Faintly Macabre—and fanciful synesthesia-fueled prose. Unsurprisingly, Juster experienced the neurological condition as a child.
In Dictionopolis, citizens buy and sell and devour letters at a street market, and words bloom from trees in an orchard. As a kid with finely tuned senses who loved to read, I found this concept delicious; when Milo ate an “I” that was icy and refreshing and his dog Tock tasted a crisp and crunchy “C,” I nearly lost my mind.
I got fixated on metaphors and similes and combining senses (mine are particularly sensitive). I can’t sleep in a room with a ticking clock or a dripping faucet, and I can tell whether I’ll like the taste of something by sniffing it across the room like some sort of prissy bloodhound. I made lists of the literal things I had decided people’s voices sounded like: my stepdad’s, a gently whirring fan; my mom’s, a fluffy cloud; my mom’s friend’s, water being poured into a tall glass. I don’t suspect these comparisons were wholly or even partially accurate—I just liked the way they sounded. I wanted to write with the same evocation Juster did.
But the Tollbooth chapter I cherished most of all came after Milo’s departure from Dictionopolis. During “A Colorful Symphony,” Milo finds himself in a forest valley across which an enormous orchestra is spread—an orchestra that plays colors into existence. Milo sees the birth of an evening conducted by wizened maestro Chroma the Great: Somber bass fiddles play the deepest blackest night, and a single set of silver bells brighten the constellations. Chroma—who is tasked with explaining the importance of color to Milo, as every character he meets instructs him in their speciality—describes the pleasure of leading his violins in a serenade of spring green or hearing his trumpets blare out the blue sea. “And rainbows are best of all—and blazing neon signs, and taxicabs with stripes, and the soft, muted tones of a foggy day,” Chroma says. “We play them all.”
The notion of one art medium informing another—not just informing, but bleeding into it until the two cannot be separated—felt magical and strange. Juster swirled senses together like soft serve, and I felt the borders of my imagination tremble and swell. I suddenly understood the sensual power of writing, the way words on a page could transport not just your mind but your body. I wasn’t the only one captivated by this scene: It’s also the place in Tollbooth where Milo’s sense of wonder finally floods into the text. So inspired is he, the boy attempts to conduct the orchestra himself the next morning while Chroma sleeps, resulting in a disastrous color mix-up (the sky turns magenta and the flowers go black when he fails to control the instruments). It goes to show that good art takes more than vision—it takes practice.
Rereading the book during the pandemic, I was struck by how seamlessly the themes adapt. There is Tock, Milo’s trusty sidekick “watchdog” with a clock built into his body, serving as a stern reminder of Time as our most precious and wasted resource. There are the “demons” of ignorance and procrastination, who attempt to thwart Milo’s journey; most memorably there is the sleek and faceless Terrible Trivium, a monster of habit that tricks Milo into conducting petty tasks and worthless jobs, a character I recognized keenly when I read the book mid-Covid. I’ve faced the Trivium myself this past year, most notably in hours squandered playing the video game Snood.
I hadn’t played the game in twenty years but found myself craving the primary colors, busy backgrounds, and alien faces who grin and grimace and exist to be blasted out of the sky, as per the game’s rules. I played it on my phone to keep my hands busy while streaming mindlessly comforting TV programs. My wrists and forearms were sore, both from scrolling Twitter for news of infection rates and from playing the game. It’s turn-based rather than time-based, so I didn’t feel harried, and the screen starts off full and is gradually emptied, which is what I wanted to do with my brain.
And I didn’t want to write: Despite Milo’s colorful symphony demonstration, I couldn’t bring myself to practice what I loved. While other people were knitting or making sourdough, I was too afraid to make an effort, in case it didn’t matter. In case the world never recovered. In case the sounds, sights, and smells I depended upon never returned.
Since the pandemic began, I’ve missed the hush as movie theater lights dim and the peculiar nervous notes an orchestra hits when tuning before a concert. And I’ve thought, often, of the last time I saw a group of friends before news of the pandemic made us scurry into our respective apartments. It was at a West Hollywood music venue, where my musician pal was performing and where the lighting glows deep red. I thought about the color of my friends’ faces in that light, the smell of beer and sweat, indistinct bar chatter, and the way the floor vibrated along with the bass, the sound shooting through my body like bagpipes. That was the last time we were together before the world changed. I am startled by the innocence of that evening, of not knowing I would spend so much of the next year alone.
But I am grateful, too, for the sounds and colors I had access to despite the virus: someone’s laughter over Zoom, my cat’s silky fur against my bare feet and the way she chases an ant around the periphery of my bedroom. Watching the seasons pass last year during walks at my favorite nature preserve, it felt almost the same as before the pandemic, even the same as when I walked there as a toddler. The trees didn’t know what fate had befallen us, or if they did, they weren’t terribly concerned. I did not have my real friends on hand, but I had the rustle of wind through the leaves of more ancient companions. On the back of that wind, my brain rose and skipped and tumbled far beyond the boundaries of any quarantine.
The primary “sin” in The Phantom Tollbooth is specialization to the point of obsession. Those in the word kingdom are burdened by verbosity and meaningless talk, and in Digitopolis the ruler of numbers, the Mathematician, wastes time on useless calculations like measuring the edge of a raindrop. And so Juster’s book becomes a plea for moderation, made obvious when Milo’s quest emerges: He is to rescue two princesses, concepts-made-women Rhyme and Reason. Together, they bring good sense, but they’ve been banished to a castle in the air because no one in the land could agree on whether words or numbers or noises are most essential to the business of being alive.
Of course Milo eventually rescues them, reunites the kingdoms, and gets the rulers to grudgingly admit their treasures matter equally.
By the book’s conclusion, our hero has found himself back in his bedroom, having realized he need not escape into another world when the real one has so much to offer. Feiffer’s illustration on the final page is of Milo sitting in front of his window with a breeze blowing the curtains back, as though he’s setting sail, eager to indulge in the now-accessible magic of letters, equations, color, and questions of perspective. Milo has learned to be content with his room so long as he has the tools to escape whenever he needs to with books, music, puzzles, or games. “For Milo, who now knows the way,” reads the letter accompanying the tollbooth’s absence when he gets home from school.
This ending feels a bit like the past three months have. I’ve started reading a lot and writing again, and feeling hopeful. I suspect many Americans feel the same, as the vaccine rollout exceeds expectations and a new president has taken office. The Phantom Tollbooth sees Milo gain not only an appreciation for learning, but also a profound ability to enjoy the world viscerally—the noises and colors and silence of it all. The wonder tucked inside of the mundane.
Milo finds the beauty in the train whistles a long way off, busy department stores, the expectant pause in a roomful of people when someone is just about to speak, the moment after the door closes and you’re all alone in the whole house. Juster’s little lists of these sensations that make life worth living are what I prize most in his book. I did not realize anyone appreciated those things the way I did before reading it. And I did not realize how badly I would miss those things once they were thwarted by a pandemic. I try to recite these lists as the virus loosens its grip and the United States starts to reopen, when the prospect of easing back into the world feels impossible. It can be hard to enjoy the small things when the big things loom large and destructive, but maybe making little lists can save us—or at the very least help us to cope with the grief over what we’ve lost. Like taking inventory of all the good things.
Sitting recently on a Malibu beach, safely back in Los Angeles at last, I found myself thinking once more of Milo’s resignation to the real world. He doesn’t mourn the loss of the tollbooth (as I know I would). Although he is no longer trundling through fantastical lands, he has carried the gratitude he learned there back into harsh reality. And suddenly on that beach, I could smell the salty brine of my childhood days on a Florida coastline; I heard the tinkle of waves through seashells in my ears, though there are scant shells in California and those are mixed with cigarette butts; and I could feel myself standing two feet tall and holding the hand of my grandmother, who was with me in Florida but is now gone from this earth.
These details are so vivid they don’t make me sad—if anything, they made the grime of Malibu sand and the anxious prospect of returning to “normal life” bearable, twisted together with the pristine Gulf Coast in my mind. In Tollbooth comes the realization that amid such sensations, you can ferry yourself somewhere else if you need it. You might end up anywhere, inside your own mind. That is the magic available to us.