The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, is perhaps unlike any book I have read. Part novel, part picture book, aimed at young audiences highlighting a peculiar figure in cinematic history. To start, there is something beautiful about this book but I find it more difficult to articulate.
Many of the illustrations are exquisite. For me the best images were the ones that had the greatest scope, either interior or exterior. The more going on in the frame, the better the illustrations. Plus, there is a definite cinematic attempt being made that gives many illustrations a storyboard-like quality. Generally, this is remarkably successful. Yet, I felt the young characters, Hugo and Isabelle, looked terribly similar.
The prose narrative of the story is also clever. While the premise of a boy living alone in a Paris train station seems a slight stretch, the evolving relationships that Hugo develops with the other characters are built with care. The fact that Papa Georges is revealed to be the pioneer French filmmaker Georges Méliès was not something that I was necessarily expecting, but made the story all the more enjoyable. Being familiar with Méliès’ work and importance in cinematic history but not the man made me wonder how much of the story was true, if any. Even more surprising is how the fictional account mirrors the filmmaker’s life, giving the whole story greater appeal for me.
Even the themes of the automaton and magic was all enjoyable. These elements combined to make Hugo more interesting and well-rounded, more than a stock scamp of an abandoned kid. Plus, the weaving of cinema’s magician with a young would-be magician eased the tension between the two and made their relationship that much more authentic and interesting. Add the mysterious automaton from Méliès’ past and it is no wonder why the old man remained intrigued but the boy, even if at an arm’s length.
In spite of all of these things, something tells me that this book will be more important as a forerunner to other textual experiments of similar combinations of illustrated prose narratives. I am not sure that the two worked as seamlessly as I might have liked, but I admire the attempt immensely. Considering how much I enjoyed it and how distinctly different the reading experience was, I would like to see more efforts like this by Selznick or others. There is a lot of room for it to evolve as a kind of genre all its own, somewhere between traditional novel and the graphic counterpart.