Book Review: Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret

One evening, when I was living downtown, I came across a book in a church-run thrift store. It was this big thick-paged book with a very luminously colourful ornate cover. I’d never ever heard of The Invention of Hugo Cabret before this point, but I saw that Scholastics had published it, and it was about five dollars or so. So I bought it and it sat in a cupboard for a while until I finished my initial draft of my Master’s Thesis. Then a day or so before leaving on a trip, I began and finished reading it.

Hugo Cabret is the story of an orphaned boy of the same name who finds himself operating and maintaining the clocks of a Paris train station while attempting to fix an old and broken clockwork automaton. It is when he attempts to steal some parts from an old man’s toy booth at the station that he reveals a far greater story and his life changes forever.

I really don’t want to spoil this book. I will tell you now, though, that it is excellent. Brian Selznick is not only an excellent writer that knows how to pace and flesh-out his characters, but he is a brilliant illustrator. Hugo Cabret is essentially an illustrated novel: with pages of text inter-dispersed with sequential pages of softly shaded drawings and stylistically-faded copies of sketches and photographs. It basically looks like a notebook or a journal: especially with the image of a lock on its cover. Given that there is a notebook that features somewhat heavily in the plot–once belonging to Hugo’s inventor father–the aesthetic follows the form well.

What I also like about Selznick’s aesthetic form is that it is on that border between an illustrated novel and a comic: in that while there are pages of words, and pages with pictures and words, there are also entirely silent panels that display interrelated sequences. It’s a nice borderline form and it adds to the content nicely.

In terms of content, this book is apparently labeled a work of historical fiction. This is an interesting designation because while there is definitely one central character that is real and historical, Selznick has taken some creative liberties. I also wonder in light of this if the other characters may be conceptions of this particular character’s work made into real personalities in a meta-narrative sort of manner. I love that kind of thing, in case you didn’t already get that, but even if it’s not true there are definitely moments where the concepts of the characters could very well fit into … other conceptual places.

But what really intrigues me about this book, aside from its liberties and ambiguities as “historical fiction,” is how it eventually focuses on the medium of film. In contemporary times, we often take moving film for granted. It had to develop from somewhere after all: both technologically and artistically. Even Hollywood itself was a small independent pioneering workshop studio at one time before it gained more resources and popularity.

While this story seems to take place in the 1920s, it refers after a while to the turn of the century when film was being developed: as well looking at the kinds of people who helped to create it. And who were these people? Some of them were magicians. I am not being figurative here. Some of them, including one of the characters in this book, were artificers, artists, and stage magicians before they became directors and creators. And it makes sense. After all, aside from the fact that vaudeville and its acts, along with theatre, and opera preceded a night at the movies in terms of prestige and guaranteed entertainment, film is kind of like watching a magician’s shadow-play on a thin skein of reality. It is a concept that reminds of Clive Barker’s short story “Celluloid”: where the silver screen is a more permeable layer of existence with our world than we would be comfortable to believe.

I love the image of the magician as film-maker and inventor, and if you read this book I assure you, you will understand what I mean. A friend of mine once said to me that if I embodied any kind of film, it would be the black and white 1902 A Trip to the Moon: something that is extremely symbolic, experimental, even comic, but also parodies and is self-reflexive and aware enough to know that by consciously parodying things, it reveals its opinions on what these things are. I mention this film for a reason that has to do specifically with one aspect of the book. What’s also interesting is that not long after I read this strange and awesome artifact, a film was released based off of it: one I’ve still have yet to see.

That digression aside, I give Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret an unambiguous five out of five. Until next time, au revoir. I seem have something in my eye.