Monday 11 December 2006

The Arrival.

On Nov 7 Tom Spurgeon ran a recommendation from me for Shaun Tan’s book, The Arrival. I had some notion then of being a ‘guerilla blogger’, and if I wanted to make a thought or link known I’d offer it to Tom or somebody else if I didn’t go so far as to write a whole essay for my publisher’s blog, and if it was a quote I'd see If Dirk Deppey had a place for it in his 'thought for the day' (he always credits these offers and I’ve seen some thrown into the hat by other folk. They’re always on the ball and worth writing down.) But now that I’m on my home turf here I should say a few more words about Shaun's book. I first made the acquaintance of Shaun at a sci-fi convention in Perth Australia in 2004. That was a show I really enjoyed for some reason I can’t put my finger on. I met a great bunch of people for one. Great town too. I was introduced to Shaun’s work by my pal Justin Ackroyd of Slow Glass books. Justin doesn’t have a store front these days, but when he did, in Melbourne, and I first walked past it I strode into the place and demanded to shake the hand of the proprietor, who didn’t happen to be in at the time. Justin is one of those very rare store guys who would phone me up and patiently request that I send that damn invoice from however long ago so he could pay me and clear the nagging thought out of his brain. A couple of hours later I found myself on a panel with Shaun (one should always prepare oneself. I say ‘one’ because I don’t mean me. I do.)
Shaun’s work has always clearly fallen into the category of ‘children’s book’, and when we have read and enjoyed them, we have done so cheerfully and willingly as adult children, and without any sense of there being anything wrong with that. I say ‘we’, but if you’re outside of Australia you may have to exclude yourself from that as I’m not sure his work has been disseminated widely enough. Hopefully this is about to change.
Of Shaun’s earlier work I have the two that he authored himself. (connect this with my essay a few days back on ‘authorial illustration’. Everything connects in here and I’m building up to something big, so you’d better pay attention. ) Firstly The Lost Thing of 2000, and The Red Tree of 2001. The power of both of these books has something to do with their evocation of a feeling of alienation from physical things. One double page picture in the Red Tree has a huge reeking fish suspended over a workaday street and nobody notices it. I imagine I hear the clanking soundtrack from David Lynch’s Eraserhead. The little girl who is the protagonist of the story finds security and warmth in a red tree growing in her bedroom.
The Lost Thing reverses the situation. It’s about a sentient thing for which there is no use in the world. It looks like a big industrial steam kettle with assorted appendages that it could be breaking in for Cthulhu. It eventually finds its place in the universe, in a dream that Dali probably had.

In The Arrival Shaun tan carries his themes forward into a fully realized ‘graphic novel’ (I’ve run it through the Campbellian program and I think all four schools thought would accept it withpout argument) (I’ll only use the term if I see no obstruction to communication, and even then only in quote marks) The author has told the essential story of the universal immigrant using a photoreal style of period clothing and artifacts, except that there also all his trademark alienated things. In fact the cover is a brilliant introduction to the whole shebang. The traveler in this book is wearing clothing that is familiar to us from old photos and film, and everything he meets is an extraordinary alien creation. The purpose of things cannot be deduced from their appearances and the labels and the instructions on them are all in an alien script. The book is a hardback of 120 pages (in contrast to the softcover 32 page volumes of his childrens' oeuvre), with a division of the page more often than not into twelve pictorial parts, though there is are sequences with twenty and thirty parts each. And elsewhere sprawling vistas across two pages. You will think yourself an arrival at New York’s Ellis Island, but wait, that is not the statue of Liberty, and what is that odd looking longtailed beast on its shoulder? In all of this, not a single word. At least none that you or I could understand, being ‘lost things’ ourselves in front the majesty of this masterpiece. It’s a beautifully moving and human work, and my favorite picture story book of the year.
When I asked Shaun about the book he told me: "It's the first book of mine to be picked up by a US publisher, who I think were previously unable to categorise my 'children's' books. This one has a lot of references to Ellis Island that a US audience might pick up even more acutely than an Australian one. Scholastic should be putting it out fairly soon." I don't have a date , but if I get one i'll let you all know.
At his own website the author has an essay: Picture Books: Who are they for?,
"One of the questions I am most frequently asked as a maker of picture books is this: ‘Who do you write and illustrate for?’ … It is interesting to observe that when I paint pictures for gallery exhibitions, I am never asked who I am painting for." This would be worth discussing except that I know from many years experience that this argumnent always degenerates bathetically into one about filing. I once suggested that Seth's Vernacular Drawings was to be counted among the great 'graphic novels' (when I still admitted the use of the term) but was met with the retort that it should instead be filed with the 'art books'. Comics fans being what they are, vocational filing clerks, it ends up being about where things get put in the store, which is not what we really should be concerned with. What we should be asking is where do we file it when we get it home? Do we file it with the other monuments of Parnassus, with our Mozart and our John Donne and our Cervantes, or do we keep it upended in the water closet of our cultural memory, as an accompaniment to our bowel movements?

There is more info here: "Shaun Tan was born in Australia in 1974. In 1992 Shaun won the International Illustrators of the Future Contest, the first Australian to achieve this award. He has been illustrating young adult fiction and picture books since 1996. If you live in or visit Perth take time to drop into the Subiaco Public Library to view Shaun's amazing mural, which spans 20 square metres of wall in the children's section." And how we envy them wee'uns.

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Blogger Alex said...

Might be worth checking... thanks for the input

11 December 2006 at 05:47:00 GMT-5  
Blogger spacedlaw said...

Indeed his works look beautiful (although I must say I was a tad disappointed that clicking on the "lost thing" picture did not enlarge the picture).
I will certainly look for his stuff, even if they are sometimes children books. I buy a lot of these because - with cookbooks - they are often the most beautifully illustrated things.
Thanks for the tip.

11 December 2006 at 05:54:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Alex said...

whoah, I've been browsing through and a couple of his books have been published in Spain... (although The Arrival, which looks the most promising to me hasn't) I'll definitely take a look :)

11 December 2006 at 05:57:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Faff said...

Books are widely available in the UK with multiple copies in the local ibraries here in Southampton. Tan's work is wonderful and the sort of book a five year old can enjoy again and again as much as the 42 year old parent reading them aloud.

11 December 2006 at 06:10:00 GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw the The Red Tree a couple of years ago. An illustrator friend was raving about it for weeks and with just cause. I'll definitely check out the new book.

On a different note. My filing system at system at home revolves around what stacks up neatly in piles on the floor as I ran out of bookshelf space sometime around a year and a half ago.

But the issue of naming for me is not really about what's in a book or where it goes. Its about having to spend the first two paragraphs of a research grant application explaining that I wont be doing research on editorial cartoons or animation (which is the first thing people dishing out money ask you about when you say comics - you get a bit more mileage from graphic novel) and then getting turned down because the person next in the pile doing work on the novel had an extra two paragraphs to explain why what they're doing is important.

Muh, maybe I'm just bad at writing the things...

11 December 2006 at 06:29:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Kelly Kilmer said...

Thank you Eddie! You've totally made my day. I'm in Los Angeles and I've managed to amass a collection of Tan's work. I did not know about this new publication. Now I know what to ask the husband to find me for Christmas!
Thank you again

11 December 2006 at 13:44:00 GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was not familiar with Tan's work (although my homecountry is a neighbour of Australia), and just started browsing for more info about it after reading your post. Thanks, this is a great discovery for me!

p.s. I just typed 'nitfu' for verification, if anyone is interested..

11 December 2006 at 15:34:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

Peter, I acquired a love of Bill Peet by reading his books aloud to my kids. Especially Huge Harold. Haven't seen them on sale in a long time, though of course we still kkeep our copies. I recently bought Prowlpuss by Gina Wilson/David Parkins just because it looked so good.
Alex, Nathalie, Kelly hope you enjoy finding out more about Shaun's work
Ben, I'm worried that you thought I was being literal about the filing instead of referring to where we have placed the work in our collective esteem.
and Tita, Nitfu is a good one. I've just got jsxmunz.
no it's been returned. now I've got kjbmv
now I've got ypjzjs. Does everybody have to do this four times?
now I've got yoczer
and i'm getting pissed off
still won't work
now I've got lgfpdke
wait a mo. I just realized i haven't signed in...


11 December 2006 at 17:03:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...


11 December 2006 at 17:04:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

p.s. Kelly, 'the husband' was noted and appreciated.

11 December 2006 at 19:50:00 GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

FYI: Book critic Jerome Weeks (formerly of the Dallas Morning News) selected "Fate of the Artist" as one of his favorites for the year. It's a nice little plug.

11 December 2006 at 22:14:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

yes, I did see the Weeks post. thanks.
'playful and exasperating'

13 December 2006 at 17:29:00 GMT-5  

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