Last Saturday in Estacion Palabra I re-read The Phantom Tolbooth and most of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I literally gasped when I saw “Tolbooth” on the shelf. This was one of my absolute favorite books growing up, the rare children’s fantasy world novel that stands alone and isn’t part of a trilogy. I love any book that has a map in the opening pages, period. “Tolbooth” really does a wonderful job of capturing what it feels like to be a kid whose childhood is defined by books. The movie critic in Salon sums up this feeling very nicely in a recent review:
I’m not talking about the overrated notion of “being returned to a sense of childlike wonder,” or anything like that. I’m talking about a movie that captures something even more intangible than that, the very texture of an experience… the quiet, intense joy I felt as a kid, first poring over illustrated details in picture books (the nooks and crannies of Beatrix Potter’s rabbit warrens and mouse houses, for example) and later in the semi-fanciful, semi-naturalistic details to be found in Kenneth Grahame and A.A. Milne and Dahl.
“The Phantom Tolbooth” is just so unique is so many ways: how can you not love Subtraction Stew? Or jumping to the Island of Conclusions? When Milo was lost, winding his way through the Doldrums, and managed to escape by thinking hard (i.e. putting his brain to good use) all I could think was God, what a valuable lesson for me at this point in my life. This past week has been a little difficult for me because so much of it has been pure office work. I mean, I managed to get a lot of work done on projects on my workplan, all with fancy, scary sounding titles like “Operational Cost Analysis” and “Interest Rate Calculation/Verification.” Next week I’ll definitely be out in the field meeting clients again (I’ll probably end up missing the office!). But humans were truly not made to be shut up in offices, hunched in front of little computers all day. Thank god I enjoy my co-workers and feel like the work I’m doing is actually important and has a point to it; otherwise, I can see why office jobs could be a slow, droning form of suicide for many people.
It was fun to re-read the Eggers book too, which I hadn’t touched since 2000, the first time I read it. I was in summer camp at CTY at Skidmore College in New York. I remember feeling very impressed that my creative writing teacher knew Dave Eggers. Anyway, I LOVED the book. I was convinced it was completely and utter genius. I carried it around with me everywhere. I read it lying on my stomach in the grass, hanging out with the goth kids as they talked about Smashing Pumpkins and drew things on their shoes with black marker. I think I may have even cursed myself a couple of times and my apparent lack of talent: “why can’t I write like Dave Eggers?!”
Well… I’m really glad now that I *don’t* write like the Dave Eggers in AHWOSG. (I don’t mean this as a diss!) Now that some time has passed, this book stands out in stark contrast to everything he’s written afterwards (“Velocity”, “What is the What,” the Katrina book that looks really interesting). So much of it takes place inside twentysomething-year-old Dave’s head, which can be an intense place at times.
I was really afraid upon picking up the book that I was going to absolutely HATE it, kind of like the people who watch The Graduate thirty years later and realize that Benjamin Braddock is an absolute dud and that Mrs. Robinson is truly the only likeable character. However, my fears were rapidly assuaged once I read the description of how Dave’s younger brother used steak knives to cut open bags of pretzels, or the classic MTV Real World application interview. The “Dave” character is just intensely trapped in his head, painfully so at some points. However, although it can get a little claustrophobic at times, I think it’s wonderful and incredibly honest. It feels extremely 90’s. The 90’s was a very “Me” decade, wasn’t it? Everyone wanted to be introspective and painfully honest, Little Earthquakes-style.All those female-singer songwriters, Kurt Cobain strumming his acoustic guitar and singing about his pain. (My sister writes more about the theme of exposure in AHWOSG here.) What do we have now? A global melting pot, I guess, with M.I.A. and people wanting to get back to their gardens.
There is a ton of death and decay in this book. This is not a fun-hearted, haha, fun and games book with ironic slackers cracking witty comments (though there is some of that). I thought this book was hilarious when I first read it; this time, I found it incredibly sad (maybe this is just a sign of how I’ve gotten older. This book is filled with death and injuries: friends, parents, family members. More than anything else, the main message that stuck with me after re-reading this was how Eggers seems to be saying Life is crazy, and it’s really hard to make it out alive and unscathed.
It was a good reading choice at this point my life, in a week where two girls from my college were hit by a car in Portland, on a street that I myself have biked past many a time, almost every morning in fact from January to May on my way to work at the elementary school. One of them was killed and the other is in a coma and apparently it’s increasingly unlikely she will wake up. I didn’t know either of them, we were nevertheless connected through friends-of-friends the way that everyone is in a small school at Reed. One of them was friends with my older brother; I had a class my senior year with the other girl. She was actually one of the first people I ever talked to at Reed, shortly after some kind of assembly had finished and we were all filing into the cafeteria and I was freaking about not knowing anyone so I just started talking to the girl in line ahead of me about our outdoor wilderness orientation trips. I don’t think we talked ever again after that. And now she’s dead. That… that makes me sad.
Isn’t that crazy how people can just DIE, just disappear completely off the earth?? Think about it: you’re crossing the street to go to Fred Myer, and then in the next ten seconds you no longer exist. The Internet especially makes things weird, because you’re leaving behind an online record of yourself. Your Twitter, facebook, livejournal account will suddenly become like these untouched statues, your last footprint on earth. It’s terrifying, though maybe you could also think of it as reassuring… maybe. I’m not sure what lesson I’m supposed to end with this. Try to live in the moment, I guess. Or as I said on the phone with my dad, “you gotta enjoy your steak tacos when you have them.”