October 08, 2015
(++++) THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING VISUAL
The Marvels. By Brian Selznick. Scholastic. $32.99.
Pearls Gets Sacrificed: A “Pearls Before Swine” Treasury. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.
The story-presentation format invented by Brian Selznick in his brilliant The Invention of Huge Cabret is no longer new, having been used again by Selznick in Wonderstruck and now appearing for a third time in The Marvels. But the approach is, visually, as amazing and compelling as ever. Half of this more-than-660-page novel is drawings, all of them wordless or with a few words seen on, for example, a piece of paper – never in characters’ mouths. The drawings themselves tell the first part of the story with wonderfully cinematic pacing and tremendous impact, inviting readers to race along from page to page to find out just what is happening and what it all means. This is virtuoso storytelling, easy to get through and quick to absorb – and far more involving than illustrations are when they are merely adjuncts to a written tale or integrated into it in a form such as the graphic novel. There is nothing else quite like Selznick’s approach to The Marvels – except his use of the same approach twice before. But The Marvels is structurally different from the earlier books, being arranged as two separate stories – one visual, one in words – whose interconnectedness only gradually becomes clear. Thus, there is a mystery here, one that unites the entire book and appears to cover the years from 1766 (when the visual story begins) to 1990 (when the written one takes place). “Appears” is the operative word here, however, because as young Joseph Jervis – protagonist of the contemporary story – starts to unravel the oddities of the strange London home of his uncle, Albert Nightingale, inconsistencies begin to emerge along with connections that somehow do not quite tie together. Albert’s own reticence, unexplained until its source eventually comes out and clears up much of what is going on, is only one issue that Joseph faces. A runaway from school and from absent and uncommunicative parents, Joseph is also trying to figure out who he himself is, what his background is, where he belongs – the usual quests of a preteen in a mystery/adventure. But as The Marvels goes on, the revelations prove anything but usual. The entire first half of the book – that is, the visual part – is about a theatrical family known as the Marvels, which passes its love of Shakespearean acting down through generation after generation until, in 1900, young Leontes Marvel is banished from the theater when it turns out he would rather draw than perform on stage. On the verge of boarding a ship for India, Leontes returns to the theater when he sees the glow of a fire, and he realizes what must have caused it, so he – there the visual story breaks off and the one in words begins. But this halt at a climax is scarcely a cheap trick – Selznick is too good for that. Readers will surely be disappointed at first, but as the modern, told-in-words story progresses, they will be drawn further and further into it and start to see how it connects with the older, told-in-pictures one. Or they will think they see the connections, but in fact, Selznick masterfully misdirects readers’ attention (and Joseph’s), so that when revelations finally occur, they come as genuine surprises.
So far, so good – better than good. Unfortunately, the last part of the book does not live up to the wonderful buildup, even though it makes sense in terms of the novel’s overall structure – and the return of illustrative material at the end knits matters together very cleverly. Selznick is too determined here to write something meaningful, to question reality and make-believe, to look into the importance of storytelling itself, to explore ways in which fiction can be realer than reality. These are big aims, ones undertaken by many other authors in many works for adults and not often attempted in a book for young readers. The problem is that they overweigh The Marvels. It soon becomes clear that the title refers not only to the family introduced in the early part of the book but also to the marvelous aspects of storytelling itself, as well as to the marvelous things to be found in Uncle Albert’s house and – well, there are marvels aplenty here, rather too many for the book to be fully coherent. The intertwining of reality and make-believe extends to the creation of the book itself, as Selznick explains in an Afterword – but this is all rather abstruse and convoluted, and takes some of the joy out of following the story lines of The Marvels and learning how the various characters relate to each other. There is also a politically correct but narratively gratuitous inclusion of homosexuality in the book – with the narrative bent and twisted around the subject matter, because in the real world, the real real world in which Selznick created the book, homosexuality was a factor in the story whose elements Selznick modified for the novel. The Marvels is a wonderful read despite these flaws, thanks to a format that, although no longer new, is very far from stale. But there is already so much in the book that adding more and more and more to it as the narrative progresses makes it, in the end, far more unwieldy than it would be based on its structure and length alone.
Part of the success of Selznick’s books lies in the way they defy expectations: readers expect a novel to be told primarily in words, so elevating pictures to an equal level of importance makes these books something special and unusual from the start. In another medium, comic strips, readers expect the visual elements to dominate – otherwise, why use the format at all? But a number of contemporary strips have art that is passable at best, and rely on words rather than pictures to make their points. The snarkiest of them is Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine, whose new oversize Treasury volume – containing the cartoons previously published in the collections Breaking Stephan and King of the Comics – continues this lawyer-turned-cartoonist’s approach of offering even more words than in the previous, smaller-size books. Whether those extra words, sprinkled among the reprinted strips, are reason enough to buy Pearls Gets Sacrificed is a matter of opinion. The remarks sometimes do provide interesting insights into the strip – at one point, Goat is seen reading a book about theoretical physics that Pastis says he actually read himself, adding, “Despite not understanding almost any of it, I really enjoyed it.” At other times, the comments relate to Pastis’ less-than-first-rate artistic abilities: “This is one of those strips where Rat’s snout is inexplicably long. I cannot explain that.” “It’s surprisingly hard to draw babies. They always end up looking like tiny old men.” At still other times, what Pastis says is silly, juvenile or both, as in several comments on his sister’s Jell-O molds and multiple remarks on a sequence in which cartoon Pastis is thrown out of his house by his wife – which, real-world Pastis assures readers, did not happen in real-world Pastis’ home.
One strong argument for buying this book even if you already have the earlier collections is the cover of Pearls Gets Sacrificed, which is complex and hilarious (the back of the book shows some of the elements involved in creating it). The cover has real-world Pastis (not the cartoon version seen in the strip) about to be burned alive in Joan of Arc mode, standing – with cartoon Rat and Pig strapped to him – beneath a sign saying “Le Punster” (Pastis being notorious for the elaborate puns in Pearls Before Swine, some of which are actually funny). Crowded around the about-to-be-set-on-fire wood beneath the platform on which Pastis stands are various realistic humans and a whole batch of angry cartoon characters that Pastis has made fun of in his strip: Wanda from Baby Blues, Cathy from Cathy, Garfield, Duke from Doonesbury, Dilbert, Alice from Cul de Sac, Jason from FoxTrot, and several members of The Family Circus (with Jeffy, having followed his dotted line all over the place, carrying a burning torch on the back cover). The Pearls strips within Pearls Gets Sacrificed may put those who remember the past hilarity of Mad magazine in mind of the phrase, “the usual gang of idiots,” because that is what Pastis proffers here: lemmings repeatedly jumping off a cliff (yes, Pastis knows this does not really happen), inept crocodiles repeatedly failing to catch and consume Zebra, megalomaniacal Rat repeatedly abusing everyone and taking things out especially on sweet and gentle and not-very-bright Pig, educated but unfunny Goat repeatedly trying to set himself above all the riffraff, and so forth. Pastis’ art may not be the biggest draw (ha ha) of the strip, but his writing – which goes very well indeed with his peculiar characters – makes an extended visit to Pearls Before Swine worthwhile for anyone with a sufficiently offbeat sense of humor. And Pastis retains the ability, from time to time, to surprise readers with something genuinely touching – the more so because it is so unexpected. In Pearls Gets Sacrificed, a sequence that qualifies involves the always-chained small dog named Andy. He breaks his chain and escapes because he wants to see his father, who is dying in a hospital, but finds his dad snappish and uncommunicative to the very end – yet Andy gets a thoroughly surprising and uplifting message after the very end. Pastis never hesitates to deal with death – he kills off all sorts of characters in the strip, although he sometimes brings them back to life later – but this is a case where he actually handles the topic with sensitivity, something that is scarcely his hallmark. Pearls Gets Sacrificed is certainly not for everyone, nor is Pearls Before Swine. But those who “get it” will, it seems fair to say, want to get it.