November 10, 2011


Snuff. By Terry Pratchett. Harper. $25.99.

Wonderstruck. By Brian Selznick. Scholastic. $29.99.

     Most writers use a world, real or fictional, as the setting for their stories. A few brilliant ones, though, create worlds so skillfully and with such detail that the stories they tell could take place only in those worlds. Terry Pratchett is a past master at this – indeed, a grand master. True, in its early years, his Discworld was mostly a place where odd stuff happened and lots of gags could easily be extracted from multi-legged luggage and people with funny names. But Pratchett grew as an artist and a thinker, Discworld grew as a concept, and now, nearly 30 years later, the stories of Discworld could happen only on Discworld – and, even more interestingly, they could happen only to the particular Discworld characters who are their protagonists. This is really quite an accomplishment, the equivalent of winding up a brilliantly constructed piece of machinery, setting it loose in a beautifully structured environment, and letting it have adventures that the author can then write down. Pratchett hones this technique to a perfect finish in Snuff. And the beginning is pretty darn good, too. You see, Pratchett has a cinema director’s understanding of the importance of detail: never introduce anything and draw your audience’s attention to it unless it is germane to the plot and will prove crucial later. This, if Snuff begins with that perfect Machiavellian ruler, Lord Vetinari, contemplating the goblin lifestyle and the art of smuggling, these matters are sure to be supremely important to the book – the more so to the extent that they look like diversions. If Sam Vimes, head of the Watch in the grandly grubby city of Ankh-Morpork, is forced to turn in his badge temporarily and take a vacation with his adoring and very upper-crust wife, and insists on putting the badge in an envelope himself and then sealing the envelope, and if the envelope turns out to contain an empty tin of snuff instead of the badge, then snuff will be crucial to Snuff. And if Pratchett uses one of the oldest police-procedural tricks in the book (in any book) – cop on holiday encounters nefarious doings requiring him to abandon vacation and deal with major crime – then it is certain that the particular form of nefariousness with which Vimes has to deal will absolutely, positively pull together every thread of the Discworld fabric that Pratchett has been weaving from so many telling details ever since the first page. Reading Pratchett these days is not only a pleasure because his books are witty, sarcastic, erudite, silly, juvenile and hilarious, often all at the same time, but also a joy because every page shows the hand and mind of an absolute master of his craft at work. Yes, the mind – Pratchett does have Alzheimer’s disease (an unusual form) and does have his share of mental difficulties, but they show nowhere in his plotting, pacing, satirical bite or utterly wonderful sense of humor. Whether Sam Vimes is in crimestopping mode or placating-his-wife-and-enjoying-his-son mode – or both simultaneously – he is behaving in ways that only he could possibly behave, and only in the context of Discworld. Because it is impossible to know how many more books Pratchett will be able to produce, it is doubly, even triply important to savor each new one. Luckily, he continues to make it easy. Snuff is great stuff.

     Wonderstruck is, too, and at more than 600 pages is 50% longer than Pratchett’s latest. But despite its sheer bulk, it is far from a difficult book to read – although some of its subject matter is indeed on the heavy side. This is Brian Selznick’s second foray into a format he created with The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which deservedly won the Caldecott Medal in 2008. That is to say, Wonderstruck is told as much in pictures as in words, but it is definitely not a graphic novel and equally definitely not a traditional novel with voluminous illustrations. The story itself – or part of the story – is carried forward entirely in pictorial mode. Another part of the same story – or rather another part of the book, but what appears to be a different story – is told textually. And then Selznick knits the pieces of the stories together, showing that they are really one intermingled story, and leaving readers, well, wonderstruck. The tales take place 50 years apart, in 1927 and 1977, and focus on Rose and Ben, two people who go on difficult quests to try to discover what is missing in their lives. What they are missing is not their hearing, even though both are deaf – this is the first connection between them that readers will discover. No, what each needs is a human connection of some sort, a family connection, a sense of self derived from knowing where he or she belongs. So the quest on which the two go is not, at bottom, all that unusual: “finding oneself” is quite a common plot in novels. But nothing that Selznick does with the plot seems ordinary. The story moves around geographically as well as in time, and one of its focuses is Cabinets of Wonder, ornate pieces of furniture in which collections of all sorts were kept. They were, in essence, miniature versions of what we now call museums – and a particular museum turns out to be important to this story. Indeed, the climax takes place in what could be called a modern Cabinet of Wonder, and a very wonderful climax it is, too. Selznick does quite a marvelous job of intricately connecting his fiction to real-world events – such as the fact that 1927 was the year sound came to films (turning deaf moviegoers into instant outsiders), and 1977 was the year of a major blackout in New York City. From small things and large, small incidents and big ones, Selznick creates a story that is heartwarming but not overly sentimental, taking as one of his foundations a brilliantly snappish line by Oscar Wilde: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Wonderstruck is not, it must be said, quite as enthralling as The Invention of Hugo Cabret, largely because its approach is no longer brand-new. But it is nevertheless an outstanding book, a feast both for lovers of words and for lovers of pictures, offering a very unusual and highly original way of telling a lovely and heartfelt story in which the world as Selznick shows it is the only one in which this particular tale could possibly have taken place.

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