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Review: The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures

Peter Shea

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Review of The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures by Brian Selznick (New York: Scholastic Press, 2007).  Originally published in Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children 19(2/3): 1.

The orphan boy Hugo endures a lonely and secret life, sleeping in a hidden room in the Paris train station, continuing his departed uncle’s work of tending the station’s 27 clocks from small dark tunnels in the walls. At the start of the book, he sneaks out to steal a mechanical mouse from a toy store. He is himself a mouse, a secret creature in inhabited spaces, and also mechanical – part of the mechanism of the station – a boy with a function but no life.

The young thief is caught and forced to show an old toymaker his precious notebook, drawings for repairing his mechanical man. This automaton, the only inheritance from Hugo’s watchmaker father, is Hugo’s great secret: a writing robot. He is working to repair it using the parts from the toyshop animals, hoping that it will write a note to “save his life.”

The toymaker also has a secret, a terrible memory he wants to leave behind. He recognizes with some strange alarm the drawings in Hugo’s notebook, and refuses to return it. Hugo is desperate to get it back, and the two artisans become locked together in a strange destiny: Hugo’s secret and the old toymaker’s secret are part of a large, wonderful, sad story that promises a brighter future for both of them, if they can just work out the mystery together.

This is how The Invention of Hugo Cabret begins. It is a demanding book, initiating the reader into a specific time and place, Paris in 1931, and into a set of unfamiliar ideas and metaphors. The young reader must learn his way around this world, and believe in it. The success of the Harry Potter books shows that quite young children relish the challenge of working within unfamiliar assumptions and languages, of following a long and intricate story. This novel builds on that insight.

There is an important difference between the dark Paris of Hugo Cabret and Harry Potter’s school of sorcery. As the novel progresses, we learn that Hugo lives in a strange corner of the real world, not in some totally fantastic place. Hugo has stumbled into a fantastic story from real history; the old man from the toy store is one of the early geniuses of French silent film, from the days when filmmakers and toymakers were classed with magicians, because they made impossible things happen. The story begins with the texture of fantasy, but it moves ever closer to real history, ending with bibliography and web references. At the very end, we learn that the writing robot, which seems initially to be the most fantastic feature of the story, is one of many such automata built in the Nineteenth Century; several are on display in the Franklin Museum in Philadelphia. Thus, Selznick challenges the readers’ certainty about where the line runs between fantasy and history, forcing them to ask, “What is possible?” – One of the oldest and best of the philosophic questions.

The form of the novel provokes another kind of question. On the opening page, the narrator tells the reader to think of the book as a movie. This is strange advice; we usually consider books and movies as very different media, for different audiences, at different levels of importance. But this is a movie/book, a sustained meditation on the power of movies and on the early experience of movies as magic, as doors into the world of dreams and unrealized possibility. The conversations between Hugo and the toymaker develop this idea in many dimensions.
However, Selznick’s most striking reflection on the power of movies is built right into the structure of the book. The first few pages are like scenes from a silent movie: a trip through a train station, from the perspective of a boy hiding in the wall, peering out through the faces of clocks. Each moment in this journey is portrayed with great accuracy. Suddenly, the drawings stop, and we are confronted with pages of dense text, picking up the story just where the last drawing left it, carrying it on in lucid prose. This seamless alternation continues throughout the novel, leading us to insights and questions about how differently prose and pictures work. The pictures draw us in, convey immediate felt experience, but they are very slow. The prose provides a faster ride through the story, conveying interpretation and background impossible with pictures alone. And then, just when we are feeling starved for the feel of Hugo’s life, another haunting sequence of pictures brings us back behind Hugo’s eyes, in the dark passages of the station. We are made vividly aware that experience has both these dimensions, and that it needs both these media to come to full expression.

I imagine a young child encountering this book, following the trail of pictures, making up a story, and then running up against a page of beautifully printed prose. The child will naturally ask, “What do these strange marks mean? How are they going to help me understand this story?” That question is an entry point into the world of reading. Readers will keep asking it, all the rest of their lives. For asking that question well, and for many other gifts, lovers of literature have reason to thank Brian Selznick.