Monday, November 19, 2007

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

I haven’t figured out if Brain Selznick really is that rare children’s book illustrator who moves between picture books and novels with equal facility or if it’s just that, more than other artists, when Selznick does illustrations for a novel, they get noticed. Certainly his work for Ann Martin’s Doll People – including the trompe l’oeil title page shown here – added immensely to the experience of reading the book . (And, of course, Selznick received a Caldecott Honor for his magnificent work with Barbara Kerley‘s Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, including his homage to Charles Willson Peale .)

With The Invention of Hugo Cabret, however, Selznick blurs the boundaries between picture books and novels: the narrative alternates between traditional text and wordless sequences of illustrations. Each format contains unique information so that both are needed for the complete story. “Reading” it offers an unusual experience, for it requires shifting from one way of processing information to another at irregular intervals.

The plot is somewhat convoluted (to put it mildly). Young, orphaned Hugo Cabret has been living alone in a train station in Paris, stealing what he needs to stay alive and secretly tending to the station’s clocks. His alcoholic uncle, the clock keeper, disappeared weeks earlier, but Hugo conceals this information in order to continue work on a special project reconstructing an automaton. The mechanical figure is Hugo’s only connection to his father, who perished in a museum fire. When Hugo is caught trying to steal parts from a toy shop, the toymaker’s goddaughter Isabelle befriends him. Through persistence and coincidence, Isabella discovers Hugo’s hideout and the two fix the automaton, which surprises them by creating a mysterious drawing. The picture – an image that Hugo recognizes immediately (as will any reader familiar with Georges Melies’s A Trip to the Moon) -- moves the story into the second half of the book, and, ultimately, toward a resolution that combines film history, a fictionalized Georges Melies, art, and clockwork (or, put another way, machinery and magic -- ergo, movies).

Selznick’s narrative approach is perfectly matched to the tale, utilizing a format that combines words and sequential images in the best tradition of silent films. Even the book design recalls the genre, for the text pages have black borders reminiscent of intertitles. I’m still not certain whether what seem to be narrative flaws – a melodramatic plot occasionally relying on exaggeration, extraordinary coincidences, and actions that stem from a need to advance the storyline rather than from depth of characterization – are indeed failings or yet another of Selznick’s nods to his sources, those early action-driven movies. I am certain that this is an extraordinary book (worth more space than I’m giving it, especially in light of the many ways it explores ideas about visual narratives), one that I’m glad to have found.


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