November 2007

Jeff VanderMeer


The Arrival of Shaun Tan

Wordless yet containing worlds, Shaun Tan's The Arrival demonstrates the power of fantasy to show us our reality. It is also an example of the rare book that feels full and complete without conventional conflict and conflict resolution.

The story is simple: an immigrant arrives in a strange city and tries to make a life for himself so that one day he can send for his family. He encounters strange, fantastical creatures that are as natural as breakfast, lunch, and dinner to the native inhabitants. He learns the stories of other immigrants who have come to the city. At the end, he is reunited with his family.

I'm giving nothing away by summarizing the plot because it is, as I've said, simple. The complexity and the richness of The Arrival come entirely from the painstaking and effortless execution of the central idea, using a myriad of panels that, mostly in warm sepia tones, convey not just movement but the moment.

One page is just small, square images of cloud formations. Another page is a panoramic bleed of an obelisk-and-symbol-strewn surreal city with vaguely birdlike iconography. But everywhere, in every type of panel, Tan has managed to convey a wealth of motion -- the bustle and lively anarchy of urban life -- while also conveying a profound and steadying silence and stillness. Tan's commitment to an art style that can accommodate these two extremes simultaneously explains the most odds-defying success of the book: that it seems static but is actually dynamic, that it seems personal, and yet it has grandeur.

This dynamism wedded to depth seems to come from character. Even though the nameless immigrant appears in the panels rather than looking into them, I felt that the sturdy brilliance in Tan's style was reflection of the strength of the character. True, we see the immigrant acting in a solid, honorable way as he tries to become comfortable with the strange, but it's also the warmth and texture of the images that convey this about him.

...And yet, the city is truly strange, filled with odd metamorphosing creatures and bizarre buildings -- even if, like all immigrants, the man eventually becomes so accustomed to them that they melt into the background, as familiar to him as an ATM, a cell phone, an automatic door is to us. Nothing in the warmth of the style can ever disguise the alienness of the grotesquely playful beast shown on the front cover of The Arrival. I only have to imagine what it would look like in real life to know that. Yes, this grotesquery works on a symbolic level, showing how foreign a city looks to a newcomer, but it is also highly effective as fantasy. You tend to believe in the world you are shown, and you believe, too, that it has hidden vistas and a purpose and causality.

Have I mentioned the word seamless yet? The simple story, allowing Tan to focus on the complexity of every-day life, has allowed for the creation of what I feel is a seamless classic, one in which every detail has been lovingly and carefully thought out.

Grace notes. This book is full of them, none quite so moving as the dozens of immigrant faces drawn on the inside boards and endpapers. These faces stare out at the reader with a kind of luminous intensity and a wisdom of experience. They are often still visible in glimpses as you turn the pages.

I've read The Arrival three times now, and each time I am more and more convinced it is my favorite graphic novel of the year.
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
Arthur A. Levine Books
ISBN 978-0-43989529-3
128 Pages

As always, send comments, complaints, and mutterings to vanderworld at Materials for review should be sent to Bookslut and to me at: POB 4248, Tallahassee, FL 32315.