You know that feeling when you're sitting in a movie theater and the lights dim? The audience hushes, the curtain opens, the music starts to play, and suddenly you feel as if anything can happen, as if your very dreams could be projected up there on the screen.
OK, on the other hand, maybe you don't know --- or remember --- that feeling at all. In this age of megaplexes, stadium seating, DVDs and home theater systems, it's hard to imagine a time when going to the movies was truly a magical experience. In his fascinating new novel, THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET, Brian Selznick brilliantly recaptures this feeling and repackages it for a new generation.
Selznick's reputation up until now has been primarily as an illustrator, so it's no coincidence that nearly half the novel's pages consist of wonderfully detailed line drawings. What's remarkable about the way Selznick uses illustrations, though, is that the pictures --- often as much as the text --- help to tell the story, to set a scene, even to develop characters.
Take the novel's opening pages, for example. On the first two-page spread, we see a full moon peeking out of a small white box in the middle of a sea of black. On the next page, the box opens up to reveal more of the sky. Likewise, in the third and fourth pages, the black border (like movie theater curtains) retracts to reveal the Paris skyline. Subsequent pages focus on the Paris train station, and finally settle in on one particular boy in the teeming, bustling crowd inside.
That boy is Hugo Cabret, whom we proceed to meet in the text that follows. Hugo is a lonely boy, an orphan who has been charged with maintaining the many clocks in the train station. Hugo secretly lives in the station, too, stealing what he needs to get by. This includes not only food, but also small mechanical toys from the grouchy old gentleman who runs a toy shop in the station. Hugo needs the parts to help him repair the clocks --- and to try to fix his greatest secret and most prized possession.
It's an automaton, an incredibly intricate mechanical man. Hugo's father found the machine and spent years trying to fix it. After his father's death, Hugo is determined to fix the automaton. After all, the automaton's mechanism should allow it to write --- maybe even to pass on a message from Hugo's dead father. If only he could find a way to make it work!
Soon enough, though, Hugo's thefts get him in big trouble with the toy shop owner. Hugo's new connection to the man and his busybody goddaughter seems to threaten the future of the automaton as well as Hugo's own well-guarded secrets. Or could it be that these new acquaintances are just what Hugo needs after all?
Inspired by real historical characters and films, Selznick's novel is a real breakthrough in storytelling technique. By using illustrations --- including not only his intricate drawings but also film stills and other archival photos --- to further the plot, establish setting and even develop his characters, Selznick's spare prose seems to gain gravity and importance as well. Readers will pore over not only the illustrations, but also the words, which are rarely wasted and often contain real wisdom.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 30, 2007
The Invention of Hugo Cabret