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118: TEXT AND PICTURES

#118: TEXT AND PICTURES. The art of illustration is still pretty much confined to books for younger readers—back in the seventies John Gardner made a noble push to have his novels illustrated, but the notion died with him—but it’s been in a plentiful and adventurous phase. In some minds it hails back to the moment in Maurice Sendak’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are, when the creatures of Max’s dream push across the page divide, elbow the text aside and for a few pages have it all wonderfully, wordlessly to themselves—the famous “wild rumpus.” But there are a couple of authors who have pushed the text/picture relation into original and interesting territory.

In Ransom Riggs’s recent trilogy—Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Hollow City and Library of Souls (Quirk, 2011-15)—the inspiration has come from his and others’ collections of old photographs, some of them ominous but unretouched, some simply evocative, some trick photography of differing techniques, and more than a few of them reminders of how disturbing and weird old photography could get. At their suggestion Riggs has spun a story of the peculiars—children with various supernatural abilities who, at threat from the normal world and from a few renegades of their kind, live in time loops—separated realms where a single day is repeated ad infinitum, and they do not age. Jacob Portman, an adolescent leading a frustrated and hemmed-in life in Florida, stumbles into this realm after seeing his grandfather killed by a nightmarish creature—a hollowghast, which species will threaten and form his life as the stories play out. Riggs expends a considerable imagination bringing these people to life, and by the end we have been charmed and touched by them—he makes them a believable mini-society, the family Jacob has been desiring. The plot, however, turns out to be standard issue: mad-genius-wants-to-rule-the-world, group-of-plucky-children-brave-peril-and-come-to-the-rescue. At this late date, after the Harry Potters and all, shouldn’t this notion be retired for a very, very long time? Riggs’s mad genius even has an evil laugh; the evil genius has an evil laboratory, and this part of the plot is a pretty bald crib from Philip Pullman. Riggs’s second volume hums along nicely enough, but the third is a bit of a slog. Even when the prose went into a low-blood-sugar dip and the dialogue relaxed into movieish smart remarks, I liked the world of the books and the characters and will probably remember them; the photographs are fascinating; the atmosphere lowers but the good guys (and girls) triumph; I just wish the plot wasn’t quite such a jimmy-rig. (A long sigh….)

(One of the historic events woven into the Peregrine trilogy is the explosion in 1908 that flattened a good chunk of Siberia, for which Riggs has concocted a fanciful explanation. In truth the event remains a mystery, chalked up variously to meteor landings, a nuclear explosion, black holes and/or extraterrestrial visitation. For a readable account of the Tunguska Event, read The Fire Came By: The Riddle of the Great Siberian Explosion, by John Baxter and Thomas Atkins, published by Doubleday in 1976. A nice addendum to Riggs’s Peculiar universe is Tales of the Peculiar (Dutton, 2016), an amusing collection of stories illustrated, not with Riggs’s unnerving photos, but some attractive drawings by Andrew Davidson.)

Brian Selznick, with his book The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic, 2007) has begun a nice experiment in storytelling: young readers’ novels in which the cross-page illustrations take up the narrative for long bits of the book. The illustrations can be ordinary enough (he’s at his best with the character portraits) but they succeed in the storytelling task, and Selznick manages a fair amount of the marvelous without a single evil genius in sight. Hugo is a boy who has lost his parents and, terrified of the orphanage, lives hiding in the cavernous back chambers of a Paris train station, where he fills in winding the station clocks for his drunkard uncle, who has gone off on a binge and not come back. He is taken up by a sharp-tempered toy-seller in the station and befriended by his goddaughter; the story goes from there. I’ll risk a spoiler and say that the story has a good deal to do with the fabled silent film-maker Georges Melies, whom I’ve always loved, and one of the charms of Hugo Cabret is its unapologetic fascination with trains, clocks, automata, mechanical toys, things that go; another charm is its suggestion that books and movies are not enemies, but allies in storytelling. Hugo Cabret is a lovely book that has adventure and sentiment and is full of fine particulars: it has a portrait of the great Orsay train station clock (now in the Musee d’Orsay); when Papa Georges wishes angrily that the snow could drown out the sound of heels clicking in the street, we remember with a shock that Melies’s films were melted down and used to make heels for women’s shoes. Selznick has put his heart into the book but he’s also done his homework.

His second book, Wonderstruck (2011), has a lovely feeling to it as well, but it runs into structural problems: the text and the illustrations are basically telling two parallel stories; good as it is, it runs on a slightly lower order of inspiration. With his third book, The Marvels, he has really hit form. The illustrations here do the storytelling for almost the first four hundred pages of the book (Selznick’s books are always bricks). It starts in 1766 with the performance of an onboard play and rattles rapidly through a shipwreck, a jungle island, a rescue, and then follows the establishment and decay of a theatrical dynasty in London; just at the turn of the twentieth century, the Royal Theater catches fire, and the pictures end with an image of the blaze. The text now begins, abruptly, in 1990, with another boy lost in London, and his discovery of a house whose caretaker is obsessive in preserving its detail; the text takes us through the discovery of the connections between boy, man and house, which turn out to be a delightful flipover from what you probably expect. The pictures resume the story for another forty pages, beginning with a different sort of blaze, ending with a final ties-it-up picture that literally made me gasp with surprise and pleasure. The book’s mysterious and evocative motto is: “You either see it or you don’t.” It would be a pity of you didn’t.

The house in The Marvels is real, by the way, and can be visited: details are in the book. Harking back to Hugo Cabret, Selznick’s movie connections are real enough: he’s related to David O. Selznick. When it came to making the movie, they gave the reins to Martin Scorsese, who did a bang-up job (after making “Mean Streets,” “Raging Bull,” “Taxi Driver” and others such, he wanted to make a movie his young daughter could see; Scorsese has been, of course, one of the tireless and heroic figures in the fight to preserve old films). Selznick in turn wrote The Hugo Movie Companion, one of the most charming and best-produced book-to-movie volumes I’ve seen. If, after reading Hugo Cabret, you become interested in Georges Melies (it would be a pity if you didn’t), go to Youtube online, where a vast array of Melies is available for free.

Or: you can just do without words altogether. In David Wiesner’s Tuesday (Clarion Books, 1991) the entire action takes place in a single night, during which…no, I don’t want to give anything away. The book has some of the ominous quality of Chris Van Allsburg’s books, but the tone is deadpan and droll, the illustrations beautifully composed, and the humor is in its nicely distanced observation point—words would only get in the way. The result is charming and loopy and memorable; the lead-in on the dust wrapper warns us “there is always another Tuesday,” and he treats us to a taste of it in the final two pictures. The silence in Shaun Tan’s book The Arrival (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2007), in contrast, carries both suggestion and pathos in it. Here particularly we are brought to understand how much a story can gain in being entirely visual. The Arrival tells of a man who emigrates, from some place that suggests Europe to some place that suggests America. The brilliance in Tan’s book is in the fantastic quality of the illustrations—the surreal-looking city, its odd manner of business, its unfamiliar beasts and customs—so that the disorienting strangeness of the experience is not stated but shared. It seems to me to convey the experience of emigration as well as anything I’ve ever read and, like The Marvels, it ends with a final image that makes you gasp and smile. I was going to say how American the theme of immigration was, when I discovered that Tan is Australian—another country that knows this experience in its bones. The Arrival is funny and humane and haunting—an entirely involving and successful piece of work. A picture is worth how much?

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