December 15, 2011


The Phantom Tollbooth: The 50th Anniversary Edition. By Norton Juster. Illustrations by Jules Feiffer. Knopf. $24.

The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth. By Norton Juster. Illustrations by Jules Feiffer. Annotations by Leonard S. Marcus. Knopf. $29.99.

Inheritance, Book IV: Inheritance. By Christopher Paolini. Knopf. $27.99.

     Anyone looking for a last-minute Christmas gift that has the potential to keep giving pleasure for years, even decades, to come, has a real treat in store this year. For 2011 is the 50th anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth, an elegant and charming allegorical story – and how many allegories have ever, in any age, been both elegant and charming? Norton Juster’s scrumptious tale of young Milo’s quest for Rhyme and Reason, filled with wonderful wordplay and packed to the gills with some of the best and most appropriate illustrations ever created by the ever-creative Jules Feiffer, does not just wear well. It wears better as time goes on, showing that even in a thoroughly digitized age, in which abbreviations stand in for words and tweets stand in for communication, real words and real thoughts and real searches for meaning still have power – and are, if anything, more necessary than ever. The wonders here are unending: Tock, the watchdog, who ticks (and whose picture adorns the book’s cover); Faintly Macabre, the not-so-wicked Which; the car without a motor that “goes without saying” (“and, sure enough, as soon as they were all quite still, it began to move quickly through the streets”); the Island of Conclusions, which you get to by jumping – there is so much absolutely logical illogical absurdity here that The Phantom Tollbooth is a complete joy to discover, or rediscover, five decades after its debut. The 50th Anniversary Edition boats a wraparound plastic cover and a series of back-of-the-book “Celebrations” by nine authors, including Philip Pullman, Jeanne Birdsall, Mo Willems and others – each of whom has something to say about the book that everyday readers will likely think they would have said if they were equally talented wordsmiths. The Phantom Tollbooth is one of those books whose superficial oddities conceal (barely) some genuinely deep thinking – it is more like Through the Looking Glass, with its complex plot based on chess, than like Alice in Wonderland. The Juster/Feiffer collaboration continues to delight not only through plot, playfulness and a thoroughly marvelous use (or misuse, or abuse) of literalism in language, but also through observations that seem far too up-to-date to have been penned half a century ago, such as this one from the Soundkeeper: “‘Why, did you know that there are almost as many kinds of stillness as there are sounds? But, sadly enough, no one pays any attention to them these days.’”

     Fans of the book who want to do more than read and reread it – who want to dig and delve and probe its foundations and the meanings behind and beyond its meanings – will have a great time with The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth, in which Leonard S. Marcus presents the book’s entire text in the center of each two-page spread, with annotations at far left and far right. Like delightfully annotated editions produced in the past – The Annotated Mother Goose, The Annotated Alice and The Annotated Flatland come immediately to mind – The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth adds a lot of explanatory and analytical material without in any way endangering the delights of the original story. It is perhaps not quite as successful as those other annotated volumes, which dealt with works of earlier times that were in greater need of elucidation for modern readers. This book is more of a delight for nitpickers and trivia lovers. For example, Juster’s use of the expression “visible to the naked eye” comes with a footnote explaining that the phrase dates to 1664, when it was used in the book Experimental Philosophy by Henry Power. Interesting, but not really of much importance to The Phantom Tollbooth, there being no indication that Juster knew this bit of history. Juster’s section about “an enormous symphony orchestra” comes with a long footnote whose first half is about real-world orchestras (not really a germane discussion) and whose second explains why the “symphony” section differs from the rest of the book and “functions…as an interlude during which the hero gains a larger perspective” (very germane indeed). The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth is fun for fanciers of the original book, even when the annotations are a bit beside the point. But if you are looking for a gift for the sort of person who likes this sort of thing, you certainly won’t go wrong with Marcus’ meanderings.

     But you will, alas, invite disappointment if you choose to make someone a gift of Inheritance, the fourth and final book in the Inheritance cycle by Christopher Paolini. Coming in at more than 850 pages, this is a tome that pretends to weightiness but ends up, in its final hundred-or-so pages, feeling rushed, scattered and altogether lightweight. Destined from before its conception to be a bestseller, the book is the only way for fans of the first three volumes – Eragon, Eldest and Brisingr – to learn what eventually happens to Eragon and his dragon, Saphira. But giving it to anyone who has not already gotten it on his own would be a mistake. It is not really a bad book, but it is one that could have used much tighter editing of its first 700-or-so pages in order to allow more space at the end to tie things up more satisfactorily and without so great a feeling of anticlimax. Paolini’s writing style has matured somewhat through the four books, although Eragon had a certain immature power that made it endearing despite its extremely derivative plotting and use of Tolkien-derived language. Eldest was too talky until its stirring climax, the Battle of Burning Plains (another of many, many elements in this series lifted from Tolkien). Brisingr felt like a buildup to Inheritance, with many effective elements (and some less-effective ones) being slowly assembled as if a grand climax were just ahead. And in Inheritance, readers get – well, what? A fascinating unnamed character from Brisingr reappears here and says all of four words, then walks off. Huh? The intriguing Angela shows up again, far more powerful than readers could have suspected and perhaps (it seems) with abilities even beyond Eragon’s, but just who she is and what she is doing in the story is never made clear. A romantic element that seemed to have real emotional-connection possibilities evaporates. A deus ex machina weapon appears to save the day. And so on, and on, and on (more than 850 pages, remember). Inheritance is simply sloppy, losing track of multiple plots and subplots and bringing the main story of Eragon to a conclusion that is as unsatisfactory as it is expected. In his acknowledgments at the end, Paolini promises to return to AlagaĆ«sia (which still sounds like “analgesia”) in the future; and perhaps he will revisit the various loose ends then and knit them together, separately or as part of a larger tapestry. All well and good if he does so. But readers who have stuck with this cycle for the nine years since Eragon was published were entitled to a wrapup that would not require them to look into the future and hope that the deficiencies of the final volume would be corrected by the author at a later time. What Inheritance delivers is great promise of a rousing conclusion for 700 pages or so – and then a tremendous letdown for all Paolini’s fans. This book earnestly wants to become a classic, but it gets a (++) rating, even though it is quite obviously a must-read for anyone who wants to know how Eragon’s story turns out. Or tries to turn out.

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