Sunday, February 12, 2012

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Brian Selznick is a great author and illustrator. His previous book, The Invention Of Hugo Cabret, was amazing, and although this book seemed clearly inferior, it was a nice read nonetheless. His research is thorough, he puts a lot of thought and intentionality into his characters and the overall message, and he is a great illustrator.

Of course, I would be blind not to notice that the illustrations are a bit inconsistent, with the portraits of the main characters morphing a bit depending on whether or not they are large or small on the page. I’m also not sure that all the illustrations are exactly germane to the story (several pages are simply white circles in the midst of dark shading). Dare I suggest that this book, in form and content, was an ‘easy sequel’ based upon the platform of dedicated fans that resulted from his first book? Sadly, it came across that way several times throughout the book.

I took me only a couple of hours to finish the book, and I am not a superfast reader. As I mentioned, the pictures didn’t seem to be integral to the story, especially at first, and this in spite of the fact that one pivotal character ONLY developed with the pictures in the first half. I like when graphic art supplements the story, but Selznick seemed to quite arbitrarily elect to tell one part of the first half in words, and the other part of the first half in picture. Why? No reason that I can tell. Seemed like this artistic device was more a gimmick than an aid to the story. The second half was altogether different, and Selznick balanced word/picture much more discriminately.

Aside from the style, as far as the elements of the story, the first half of the book was not that great honestly. It felt too mundane and very much like youth fiction. I don’t mind youth fiction per se, but Selznick rose above the genre and appealed to youth and adult alike in Hugo. Wonder Struck began with a broken family and a clear case of a youth attempting to cope with his situation: no father, dead mother, living with his aunt, uncle, and cousins, and he is trying to make sense of the mystery his mother left behind by trying to conceal secrets about his true identity. It was dry mystery without the magic.

The second half was much more appealing as it created a better backdrop and started to tie together much of the dangling ends. I loved the museum adventures which lent to the nostalgic feel of historicity and mystery; and the surprise about the New York Panorama, though it seemed to come out of nowhere, was very educational. I loved how they walked out among the miniature buildings/landmarks and found pieces of Ben’s story hidden throughout. Another great metaphor of how our stories are woven throughout our landscapes, and we are at the heart of the sometimes seemingly impersonal, faceless development of society.

At the very outset, the author takes a stab at setting the tone of expectation for thoughtful readers with, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Such a beautiful line, and I’m sure it will stick with me for quite some time, but I don’t really feel like that theme played out fully throughout the book, even though the final scene was certainly a throwback to that idea. Selznick seemed to flick his storytelling brush across a variety of possible motifs, including how our lives are like valuable museums and treasure maps, the value of communication across the gulf of lost language, and even the title itself, “Wonder Struck” pointed to the miraculous nature of our existence. However, the theme that evolved most consistently was that the interconnectedness of all things in the world and our parallel journeys within it. It reminded me of the theme of Hugo: None of us are extra pieces. We all belong and are indispensible. We fit. Makes me wonder if, in one way or another, Selznick is a man of faith. He definitely sets forth bold and vibrant images for people of hope to hold onto.

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