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An Equation Resulting in Exciting Romance

February 14, 2001|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Have we got a binary equation for you. It's a little love story about a dull, conventional, straight line who falls madly in love with a voluptuous, vivacious red dot.

But the dot will have none of the line. She is enthralled with a devil-may-care, crude (yet entertaining) squiggle.

The straight line's friends all tell him to find one of his own kind--a brainiac who is a straight shooter. The line can't do it. He only has eyes for the dot.

How the line and the dot eventually get together (to form one very titillating punctuation point) is the story of "The Dot & the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics" by Norton Juster (SeaStar Books). It was written in 1963 and has been in print almost continuously ever since, including a new edition just out.

It is a tale of intellect and ardor--a story for those whose passions run deep but who are too repressed to reveal them.

It is a story, actually, about the author. He was in town last weekend from his home in Massachusetts to sign books at the Storyopolis gallery, where the 1965 Academy Award-winning short film based on his book played continuously in the background.

Juster, 72, is much more famous for his first and more substantial book, "The Phantom Tollbooth," published in 1961. It is a children's classic, made into a 1960s film by MGM, and soon to be made into another by Warner Bros.

But Juster isn't only an author, he explained the other day. For most of his life, he has also been an architect (with his own firm) and a college teacher. The trouble is, whenever he's involved in one of his three professions, he wishes he were doing another. So he keeps on writing. (Among his works: "Alberic the Wise," "Otter Nonsense" and an opera based on "The Phantom Tollbooth," first performed in 1995. A new book, out soon for younger children, is as yet untitled).

But there are those who say that Juster's most frivolous work is his most delightful--at least from an adult's point of view.

How did he come up with "The Dot & the Line"?

"That's easy," he explains. "It's autobiographical."

At one point in his life, he came to see himself as the straight line: "the kind of guy who never got to first base because he was not much of a swinger, never knew what to say or do."

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with science honors and an architect's degree, he became a Fulbright and a Ford Foundation scholar and the winner of a John Simon Guggenheim grant. Then, during a stint in Newfoundland with the U.S. Navy, he wrote "The Phantom Tollbooth" in his spare time, "to keep from going crazy." The book, with illustrations by his friend, cartoonist Jules Feiffer, won immediate acclaim.

He was a success by age 30, but women continued to ignore him. One, for whom he had a particular yearning, would "not even give me the time of day." She preferred a friend of his who was "coarse and hairy but had a great way with women." As he pondered his luckless love life, he began to see himself as the unbending straight line. His Fonzi-type friend became the squiggle. His unrequited love was the red dot.

Of course, in real life, she never did come to appreciate his talents, Juster says. 'But when you're the author of a book, you can make it come out any way you want."

Juster soon found that the woman who represented the dot wasn't really the one he wanted. He met a graphic designer from England, named Jeanne Ray. Instead of drawing her, he married her.

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