by Brian Selznick
Two boys, lying on their backs inside a great wooden sphinx, contemplate the riddles of life.
“Kaleidoscope,” the brilliant new book by Brian Selznick, is a collection of magical, strange, and mysterious stories.
A widower sets himself apart to write an encyclopedia of all human knowledge—and dies decades later, still in the middle of the first entry: the apple. The entry is so long that its pages fill the entire house.
The stories seem to be intertwined. There is always a first-person narrator; There is usually a boy named James; The narrator is in love with James. But they don’t fit into a narrative, or even a world. Sometimes James dies; Sometimes he is becoming the king of the moon, “ensuring that the universe is safe for dreaming.”
To soothe himself in the immense suffering of the world, a person steals and hoards beautiful things, but in anger and despair he breaks them all. He then uses gleaming sharks to create eerie scenes of devastation.
Each story is accompanied by art that, as we’ve come to expect from Selznick, is astonishing. We get two pieces per story – the first a kaleidoscope image of figures broken into crystalline forms; Then, on the next page, the scene that was refracting: a ship, a dragon, a clock, vines, a castle.
A mysterious storyteller takes a boy to a library where books tell the story of everything that ever happened, and everything that ever happened Will Happen. boy wants to know where Their The story is But the narrator, despite writing each book by hand, doesn’t know, doesn’t know‘He doesn’t even remember what he wrote. The boy is angry: “What‘It’s all a matter of knowing if you forget it and can‘Don’t even know where the answers are?” Later we find that the boy is trying too hard to organize the books. “It was an impossible task,” says the omniscient amnesia narrator, “but the gesture touched me somehow.
Actually in the middle of “kaleidoscope” I got frustrated like a boy. I wanted more – a hidden legend to uncover, a key that would unlock the mysteries of the book. Surely some young readers will feel this way, and lose interest. But readers of any age who love literature will find questions that demand engagement, images that refuse to be erased from the mind. While each story sounds like a big story we’ll never learn, we get the impression that we’re hearing the best part. Maybe that’s enough.
Inexplicable, kaleidoscope lights shine in a forest near a small town. What are lights? “Sometimes I think they’re angels,” says one boy. “And sometimes I think they’re Martians… but… mostly, I think they’re beautiful.”
Selznick tells us in an author’s note that she wrote “Kaleidoscope” while in lockdown, separated from her husband for three months, and that the book actually sounds like COVID art. Not because it’s related to a virus (thankfully) but because it’s prone to cravings, with isolation that can Around Dissolve with awe, with anger, and with wonder at the delicate excellence of life.
In a garden, or orchard, a dragon offers the narrator fruit from the tree of knowledge. The narrator ponders, and then refuses: “If I had known everything, there will be no secret … no surprise. … will just … answer. “
There is no answer in this beautiful book. There are only two of us – Selznick and Pathak – lying side by side in the belly of a sphinx. Not trying to answer a riddle. Just appreciating being in the middle of one.