Thursday, August 18, 2011

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Graphic novels saved my life in university.

Okay, so I have never read so many books that I’ve basically done the Thanksgiving equivalent of reading and made myself sick and tired and feeling pretty awful about myself. There is no number of books so high that I’m like, “Oh dear god, not another word, I don’t even think I can manage to make out the simple sentence ‘See Jane Run,’ it is just the most incomprehensible thing and let’s be honest, are those even words? I don’t know if I can tell them apart from numbers at this point.”

But, I have read very high concentrations of particular literary periods, which means I have done things like three solid months of Chaucer, two and a half months of Victorian novels, three months of Shakespeare, etc. etc. etc. In the middle of highlighting and circling literary tropes and writing notes like, “This is going to be very important and also probably on an exam,” I got a little, let’s say, exasperated and also maybe a little frustrated. Usually taking a break to read other books outside of some particular class concentration helped, but ummm, there was a certain point when the block of text in something kind of fun and light totally resembled a similar block of text in something like Heart of Darkness or The Sound and the Fury.

The answer for me was to start to read books with graphics in them to break up straight blocks of text that all started to look alike and tricked me into thinking they were all writing the same canonical story. This way, I still got the story (which is basically my reason for reading), but in a different enough way that it seemed like something separate to what I was doing in English courses. A lot of it was reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics. But I also picked up Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which is a beautiful book set in historical Paris that uses a back and forth between graphics and text to tell the story of the young clock keeper, Hugo Cabret. Selznick’s illustrations completely interact with the text and both are necessary to communicate the story to the reader. It’s like two threads twisted together, one text and one image, that ultimately create a stronger and more complete story.

So when I was able to pick up an advanced reader’s copy of Selznick’s new novel, Wonderstruck, which engages with the same graphic/text interaction, I was kind of like, “Look at this! New Brian Selznick! This is going to be awesome!”

But it…wasn’t. Wonderstruck tells two separate but interconnected stories. The first is of Ben, a boy who moves in with his aunt and cousins after his mother passes away, and of his escape to New York to search for the father he’s never met. Ben’s story is told through Selznick’s recognizable illustrations and blocks of text that interchange with Rose’s story, which is rendered completely through images. Rose is a young girl who runs away from home to the city to watch silent films and explore the same museum Ben enters later, after the fifty year gap that set these two stories apart. Both characters are deaf, which offers an interesting underlying link to the images used to tell this story (the final pages are dedicated to a few drawings of sign language). It’s these images that take precedence over story in Selznick’s new novel. They are beautiful, detailed, and contain everything that made Hugo Cabret such a success, but they lack the strong story behind them to support their use.

Maybe it’s because I really go in for synchronicity or some kind of pattern to the structure of the books I read, but the format Selznick uses here just seems really unevenly weighted. Rose’s section relies completely on images while Ben’s is given both words and pictures. Although the two stories eventually join up at the end, the reconciliation of both isn’t satisfying enough to call for the amount of investment Selznick asks us to make in each story. It’s an awkward beast of a book that attempts to utilize the same form and style that made Hugo Cabret so engaging. But what Hugo Cabret had was character, story, and intrigue. Wonderstruck abandons these to replicate the familiar style of graphics and text without using either as effectively as Hugo Cabret.

Unfortunately, Wonderstruck was just kind of, “Huh. Okay. The images were pretty beautiful,” for me. But reading this book did the same thing for me that it used to do in university. You can have a whole stack of heavy hitters that you’re halfway or three quarters or five ninths of the way through, with this density that makes it seem like you’ll never even finish one. Break that up with something that’s all text and images? You fly right through one of those and it really feels like those other ones are going to take 0.342 seconds to read when you get back to them.

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