Wonderstruck (by Brian Selznick)

3 11 2011

With The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the cat was introduced to a new level of originality: the novel in words and pictures, completely different from ‘your average graphic novel’, yet equally as subversive as many a comic book once was. Though not really a sequel or a companion book to the much-praised Hugo Cabret, Wonderstruck does more or less follow the same method of story-writing: words as well as exquisitely drawn illustrations are used side by side to enhance the reader/viewer’s experience.

While in Hugo Cabret there was basically one plotline, alternately told in words and images, Selznick now gives us two story-lines. One – that of Ben in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota in 1977 – told in words; the other – that of Rose in Hoboken, NJ in 1927 – drawn in Selznick’s trademark black and white pencil.  Both children experience an acute sense of loss. Ben’s loving mother has just died, and he’s never known his father. Rose doesn’t seem to have a dependable parent present either so she escapes in the world of silent movies, compiling a scrapbook on silent movie actress Lillian Mayhew. What is more, both children are also deaf and have to find their way in the hearing world, which adds to their feelings of alienation from the world. Their silent world drastically changes when they both run away to New York (imagine New York as a city of quiet !) to find what they have lost or never even had in the first place. When the 2 plotlines merge, this silent, almost otherworldly, New York becomes the place where they can finally experience a sense of belonging and togetherness. Along the way, Selznick takes his characters to some of the most wondrous places of New York City, such as the American Museum of Natural History.

On the outset Wonderstruck is not that different from Hugo Cabret, but the cat cannot ignore some of the shortcomings of Wonderstruck, which were already lurking in the shadows of Hugo Cabret. Most importantly the ‘flatness’ of  most of the characters and the one-dimensionality of the plot. Clearly Brian Selznick wants to focus on the sense of wonder his protagonists experience as they visit the magical places they visit, and as such he portrays them as innocent, almost angelic in their flawlessness. Likewise, their search is straightforward, linear and even predictable.  This is abundantly obvious in the ‘words’ part of the book.

Brian Selznick’s prowess as a visual storyteller is beyond a doubt: his illustrations are incredibly lush in their detailed play with light and dark, he has a masterful eye for detail in facial expressions and depictions of places, and he re-introduces the facial close-up as a means to dramatize the events of his story (much like in the silent movies). However, as much as the cat still marvels at the magic of the whole format, the choice of topic (cabinets of wonder, museums, dioramas…) and the craftsmanship of Brian Selznick as an illustrator, she cannot but think that he might have reached the limits of the format in the way he’s been using it… or rather: it is probably possible to go beyond what he’s gone to by now and push the boundaries of the format even further, but he will have to change something about the storytelling part of his art. As it is now, his visual artistry far surpasses his word skills, which give away that this is work aimed at a young(er) audience. There’s no reason, however, why an older audience wouldn’t be able to appreciate Wonderstruck, but they might be a bit more nitpicky about character and plot development…



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