Watch Your Tongue

I think I should start by stating this plainly, because there is really no kind way to put it, and because at least then you’ll know what you’re getting yourself into: fiction is the most dangerous hell-spawn form of literature there is, and we should be scared of it. We would, were we half as wise or kind as we claim to be, board up the bookstores and liken “storytime” to a perverted pastime of the ignorant before, speaking of the days spent in novels with sighs and helpless lamentations, murmuring reassurances that at least, now we know. We would call for the heads of those great trespassers that stand before us now, tirelessly spinning a web of beautiful lies that we promptly ensnare ourselves within, writing and re-writing the world with the callous and careless letters that drip unheedingly from their fingertips; down with Dickens, out with Austen, and will someone please tell J.K. Rowling to shut up.

There. I’ve said it, and I’m not taking it back.

Before you slam the laptop shut in anger, before you roll your eyes in derision, before you scroll mindlessly past what seems to be another hackneyed, jaded, backwards blogger fighting Society and condemning conformism, allow me a moment of exoneration. I’m not going to argue that we shouldn’t have fiction. I’m really not. Selling that horse would take a lot more time and patience than I’m sure either of us have, and, quite frankly, it’s not one I particularly want to sell. And I’m almost positive it’s not one you want to buy. It’s really not the point I’m trying to make here. What I’m saying is that literature that we classify as being false; more than that, literature that we fully and truly expect to be false, that we ardently desire to be false, harms us because we are so captivated by the eloquent designs carved onto a sheet of lies that we fail to see the torrent of truth rushing beneath.

Before we go further, I invite you to take a moment and fall backwards through the passage of time with me. Screw your eyes shut, if that helps, and recall fondly that favorite book from childhood. Specifically, find that first book you really fell in love with, when you were finally old and wise enough to understand the gravity of words placed delicately in a sentence, when rhymes and nonsense syllables gave way to the development of lovable characters and the fine points of plot structure. To read that first book again, to pore over the pages with unabashed excitement, to capture and hold in your mind and your heart the first story of your existence! Cue the sentimental music.

Out of curiosity, show of hands for anyone thinking of The Phantom Tollbooth?

For the unacquainted, The Phantom Tollbooth is widely considered a classic pick for that first love a la literature experience: you’ve got the all-too-relatable protagonist (a young boy named Milo), the whimsical sidekicks (a half clock-half dog named Tock and a likewise rhetorically relevant oversized beetle called the Humbug), an epic quest (to bring the princesses Rhyme and Reason back to the Kingdom of Wisdom), a formidable foe (in the form of various dastardly demons who attempt to thwart Milo’s mission), a whole cast of quirky side characters (we’ll get to them in a minute), and, of course, a moral at the end, delivered in a tidy bow, signed, Societal Expectations (being, in this case, to question, explore, and appreciate the glorious world around you). For added fun, the author, Norton Juster, packs the book to the brim with puns, word play, and logic problems by setting the novel in a made-up world, accessible only through a mysterious tollbooth, complete with the feuding cities of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis and a literal take on all the whimsies of the English language. The book is thinking about thinking, playing with language, and seems, as Common Sense Media puts it, a perfect score in educational value, positive messages, and positive role models. A seasoned writer from The New York Review of Books insists that it remains, to this day, one of the best books of our time. It was selected as NPR’s November 2011 Kids’ Book Club Pick, for Christ’s sake, and if that’s not a stamp of squeaky clean liberal approval, then I don’t know what is. Good, clean, innocent fun for all. Right?

Right! That is, if you’re a White, educated, English-speaking male Westerner. Juster, born and raised in Brooklyn in 1929, loads the novel with so many clichés about “foreigners” projected onto the various side characters that it becomes hard to keep straight the hodgepodge of ethnicities. He certainly doesn’t ease us into them, either: the very first character we’re introduced to in this markedly foreign and visually exotic land is short, plump, and wearing a toga. He’s called “the whether man” and apparently spends his time asking pointless questions that lead him nowhere…Juster:1, Greek philosophers:0.

Before I continue, I want to take a minute to speak to the importance of illustrations in this book, because they arguably play just as big a role as the words themselves (if not bigger, in some regards). First, it needs to be noted that the illustrator, Jules Feiffer, was a long time friend of Juster, and the two of them collaborated heavily on the novel. That means that Juster directed, edited, and signed off on all the illustrations as being accurate representations of his original vision, and that’s really important. We can’t dismiss the pictures as a separate, afterthought-like apparatus, claiming independence from Juster’s true words, but instead are forced to accept them as a reflection of his narration. And this is crucial. Because on more than one occasion an illustration elaborates on physical details not enumerated in the text, but shapes our perception of the story all the same. An example: by the description of one character, we know he has big ears and a small mustache, but it’s not until we get a stylized illustration that pulls in previously unmentioned overbearing eyebrows and a skinny, hairy body that creates a full Middle Eastern type look (a look furthered by his tendency to create “unpleasant sounds” and keeping of an analogous genie in a lamp).

This matter plays an even bigger role when we consider the audience that this book is catered towards: young readers. New readers, coming straight off picture books, who drink in visual representations to quench the dry taste of words not fully understood, and pull in hungrily from their senses to feed the ever-gnawing questions surrounding their slow descent into the sea of knowledge.

And this all takes significance in the following manner: if a child reading this text misses the subtle jab at totalitarian government in the form of a single character acting as policeman, judge, and jailer, the same character who is constantly angry, bossy, self-centered, and irrational, whom Juster has the audacity to send into battle riding a dachshund (because the whole “German” thing wasn’t coming across enough), he or she can still identify the presented image of a short, stout, severe, bald, flat-headed man as someone who is overall unsavory. And now the association can (in fact, must) be drawn between those traits and actions outlined in the story, and the visual presentation of this character. Lo and behold, here we have it: the birth of a stereotype. Because even if a child doesn’t yet know to label this character, it is the tireless and unthinking repetition of these caricatures that allow them to infiltrate and perpetuate in the minds of an entire nation of individuals. And it begins here, in the minds of children who project themselves onto a protagonist, and therefore the world of the protagonist onto their own; here, by pairing the idea that if someone looks like x they will act like y; here, in the pages of a story so delightfully whimsical that we hardly think to look twice.

To be fair, it is not necessary to have illustrations for this mental molding to take place: it simply augments the process for young children, for whom the words might not always conjure up already formed images. And I’m not claiming that every character from every novel does this: rather, just that The Phantom Tollbooth does this particularly well with a large portion of its characters, mainly (and unfortunately) because it exemplifies these typecasts that we see again, and again, and again.

I can hear your counter argument; I can hear you telling me to lay off already. I’m reading too far into the subtext, seeing ghosts in the lines, and, after all, surely the author didn’t intend any of these things, so, no harm, no foul, goodnight.

Alright, so I think there’s some definite weight to the argument that Juster didn’t intend for all of the subtext. Take, for example, the character Faintly Macabre, a shriveled grandmotherly figure with an unfortunately sized hook-nose, seen sitting in a rocking chair, knitting, while she tells stories and offers hard candy to our protagonists, recalling how her own selfishness and greed landed the country in economic peril before she was stripped of her power and sent to jail. She so overwhelmingly embodies the typical Jewish babushka (the word macabre, after all, deriving from the Jewish name Maccabee), and yet Juster himself is Jewish. This becomes a tally in favor of the idea that perhaps all of us, even our author, have been inadvertently and unwittingly instilled with stereotypes so deeply rooted that we fail to recognize them if we forget to look. But the stereotype itself is still present, even if we don’t acknowledge it. In fact, it is exactly in not acknowledging it that it becomes all the more dangerous. It is easy to fight a demon standing plainly in front of you, but the task takes on an entirely new dimension when the demon is invisible; or worse, when we fail to realize that the demon even exists.

And this is where the danger of fiction truly lies. Let us return to the novel for a moment, because, besides typecasting his entire crew into what ultimately play out as long-embedded societal stereotypes, Juster is additionally guilty of incorporating a symphony of white supremacy ideals into the language and plot itself. He openly condones the imperialistic acts of the supposed “good guys,” who literally sailed into this imaginary land and “in the name of goodness and truth…laid claim to all the country”, driving out the savage, lazy, non-time keeping, uneducated (as in, non-English speaking; there’s one great scene where the characters literally eat the letters of the English language and talk about how exclusively delicious it is) natives. Really. And we’re all fine and dandy with this, in the same way we’re all on board with blatant stereotypes running rampant throughout the novel, because we remove the concept of reality from something we’ve already designated as being unreal.

What I mean is this: when we read non-fiction, we become critical because we know we are looking at an analysis of facts. You can disagree with a historical standpoint; you can think a philosopher got it wrong. But we seem to lose that inherent power of opinion when faced with fiction. You can like it, or you can dislike it, but you can’t exactly say that it’s wrong or right if it doesn’t truly exist in the first place. No one would take me seriously if I said that the dog’s name was supposed to be Tick instead of Tock, and that Juster was telling it all wrong, because we give authors license to lie to us in whatever manner they please, under the assumption that we will accept it as is. And thus is the saving grace of the author, of the poet, of the playwright: the farther they publically distance themselves from reality, the more they seemingly delve into a world of their own creation, the more remote such concepts of right and wrong become.

And this would all be fine and good, except for that fiction isn’t independent of reality: in fact, quite the opposite. All of our stories, even the ones where a boy and watchdog and beetle run rampant through a land of pure imagination, are grounded in true life, and they all carry elements of that throughout. But we are so quick to forget this that we fail to recognize the language of our own reality, even when it is staring us straight in the face. At one point, the novel uses direct anti-immigration rhetoric to decry the influx of new “sounds” (read as: foreign languages), but no one blinks an eye because we aren’t looking for a political ideology wrapped in a children’s tale. And it is this selective blindness that makes us so vulnerable to the power of suggestion in fiction, because we buy into real world concepts that have been so trussed up by decorative language and thrilling plot sequences that we forget that they pertain to our own lives. We forget how to see racism, sexism, anti-Semitism because we have been so desensitized to these concepts throughout our entire literary experience. We perpetuate and internalize them without thought, and thusly project them onto the world with an equal measure of carelessness. And in doing so, we move these stereotypes, these ideologies, from the world of fiction into our own lives, blithely unaware of the gravity of our own ignorance.

I would stop here, but there’s one more thing I cannot, in good conscience, ignore. There’s only one decidedly dark skinned character in the entire novel, and that character is the Humbug. He isn’t an overt antagonist, so at first this might seem like a step in the right direction, but the way he is instead cast is, arguably, more damaging. He is the foil to the pure, brave virtue of Tock; decidedly untrustworthy, incredibly lazy, incorrigibly cowardly and distinctly lacking in intellect. He makes it into the motley crew, but serves mainly as comic relief, the bumbling oaf who is constantly the cause of whatever rotten mess they’ve gotten themselves into this time. The kicker? Besides being the only black character, and bearing an uncanny resemblance to an African Hercules beetle, Juster makes a point to dwell on the fact that the Humbug is afraid of water, and can’t swim. And, in the same vein, the only two strong female characters in the novel, the princesses Rhyme and Reason, are without exception described and praised primarily for their beauty. Seriously, there’s not a single time that the book talks about them without talking about how they look, whereas we don’t get a single physical description of Milo, our male protagonist. And somehow, also, although these princesses are supposed to be wise and all knowing, it’s not until Milo shows up to save them that they can leave their Castle in the Sky? The one that literally has stairs leading up to it? So, what I’m really trying to say, or rather, what Juster is saying, is that if you’re an educated white boy in America, sure, the novel’s chock full of strong messages and stellar role models, and that’s all great and fine for them. But for everyone else? Well…I guess you were going to have to live out that constructed reality eventually.