Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Marvels by Brian Selznick

The Marvels (2015) is the third novel by Brian Selznick. It follows the style of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck whereby the novel is split into a dual narrative, part pictures, part words. The Marvels (as with the previous novels) has been described as a graphic novel, a description that is rather misleading, especially in the case of The Marvels as it does not have a continuous word-picture unity--the comic style. The book is structured into 3 parts: a picture story, then a word story, then a picture story that acts as a coda to parts 1 and 2. Part 1 uses fine tonal drawings to tell the story of the Marvel family, a family of actors, from 1766 to 1900. The focus on actors is a hint to the reader that this is a novel about imagination and how novels work: it is Calvino for younger readers. Also, the drawings maintain a filmic quality, sometimes viewing from a distance, sometimes developing a facial expression over a number of close-ups: these shifting perspectives again alert the reader to the fact that this is a novel about art and how art works-- how a reader constructs a novel as s/he reads. The first part of the story is a cinema, a narrative of emotional movement. Part 2 opens in 1990 and tells the story of Joseph Jervis, who runs away from school in search of his uncle in London, one with the mysterious name of Albert Nightingale. As the narrative unfolds, connections and re-connections are made to Part 1. The prose in this section is clear and well-constructed. It balances conversation with narration and lightly touches the moving background to Joseph's story: he is in love with his schoolboy friend, George Patel, and his uncle is dying from the later stages of AIDS. Part 3 of The Marvels visually reflects on the bond that develops between Albert and Joseph as they age and merge into a contemporary gay couple, Joseph and George. The whole, though it grows through dislocated parts, finally achieves a wonderful coherence. 

Much has been made in the publicity-hype surrounding The Marvels that this is a novel with a gay theme. (Selzick is gay and the personal connection between author and material has been used almost mercilessly as a selling point!) The publishers (Scholastic) and reviewers have been walking a swaying tight-rope in promoting The Marvels. They have felt the need to stress the gay theme as a sign of the novel's originality and then remove any sense of distress that this might cause by referring to the delicate and implicit nature of the gay relationships. "Can you see the gay theme?" "There, there! "Where, where?" "This is gay." ""Oh no, it isn't." "Oh yes, it is". The end result is a pantomime of criticism. Yes, there are gay relationships. No, they are not really dealt with. Albert Nightingale, like Miss Havisham, is a Dickensian eccentric in modern London. There is a reference in the novel to how Princess Diana visited AIDS clinics and shook the hands of AIDS patients. But there is nothing in the novel that probes the conflicts and triumphs of growing up gay. Joseph's isolation is dwelt upon, yet this isolation is attributed to his dysfunctional family, his distant parents, not to any awareness of sexual difference. He learns his difference through the mirror of his uncle and he accepts that difference. There is little in the novel, however, about how Joseph relates to himself and how his love for George/Blink emerges. Selznick should be praised for innocently placing gay love within children's fiction. Publishers and reviewers should be criticised for making too much of this element: The Marvels is not a breakthrough gay novel.

The real success in The Marvels is Selznick's level of creativity. The text is rich with inter-textual references and Selznick credits his (child) readers with an intelligence in a way that much recent children's fiction does not. (What a shame that Waterstones, for example, tucks The Marvels away in an alcove of recent hardback fiction whilst highlighting the latest piece of dross from David Walliams with an in-your-face table display). There are many visual mysteries in Part 1. Angels in America hovers over the novel and elements from Shakespare's The Winter's Tale weave their way throughout the whole novel. Like Shakespeare's magical tale, The Marvels is a story of lost identity. How fitting it is that Leontes Marvel should book his escape on HMS Perdita. And the picture of Oberon Marvel, as Leontes, embracing Elenora Marvel, as Hermione, in The Winter's Tale, after a sixteen year absence, is cleverly re-imagined as the novel leaps 16 years forward from its modern beginning, in its coda, to the love of George and Joseph as they sit reading in Nightingale House. 

As Antigonus proclaims in The Winter's Tale, "dreams are toys". And as the picture of Ariel and Prospero suggests in The Marvels, this novel is "such stuff as dreams are made of". Recently, the philosopher Alain de Botton attacked the Romantic novel for its failure to do what novels should do: warn about dangers, offer maps of progress, show the good in action. Gabriel Josipovici gave a better analysis when he said that a novel can only do one thing as a fiction, confess its own fictiveness. The Winter's Tale is ever aware that is a fiction, a lie, and as such it can dream redemptive scenes that reality cannot create. New truths are born, like babies, another key motif in Selznick's latest novel. The same is true of The Marvels. It is a novel of fictive possibilities that sees reading and story-telling as a redemptive act-- stories, like dreams woven by the brain, exist to create sanity in a mentally disordered world.

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