The Arrival by Shaun Tan

We used to have a saying in our house, "Never try to make a happy baby happier." The idea was that if everything was going beautifully, tossing in another toy might disrupt the balance. Well, I feel like a happier baby now that I have not only read Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan*, but The Arrival as well.

The NY Times book review online talks of the book's "sheer beauty" and says that "His drawings depict architecture and clothing that are at once historic and futuristic," but that did not really prepare me for the real beauty and wonder I felt turning the pages. "Historic," in this case, means from various countries and times. "Futuristic" means a world with flying booths, fantastical creatures, and ways of getting food out of walls that corresponds more with dreams than daily life. Along with the characters, we too, are new to this place, which feels like the fantastical shadow of New York in the early 1900s.

On his websiteTan shows many images from The Arrival and tells about his process. He writes that his personal background of growing up in Australia with a Chinese father and an Australian mother gave him a "vague notion of separateness, an unclear identity, a detachment from roots…" Both Tan's sense of confusion and longing to understand is embodied in the characters' feelings and can be clearly understood, even without words.

Through his process he researched graphic novels and discovered that they are more like films than comics. He had not set out to produce a graphic novel, but it turned out that the story wanted to be told in pictures and to feel like a family photo album with sepia images. He cited learning about storytelling through sequence from Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics as an excellent resource (I agree), and how Japanese manga is quite different from American comics. He also mentioned another of my favorites, Uri Shulevitz's Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children's Books.

This story in images primarily unfolds through sequence, accumulation of ideas, and overall landscapes. I'd like to point out its brilliance on a purely structural level (I hope you will experience the story for yourself if you haven't already). It begins with a series of objects and a family portrait; we learn who this family is through the objects: their economic status, their relationships to each other, that someone will be traveling. In the portrait we see their faces. Next, we see a sequence of actions, like movie stills; the family arising and getting ready for the day. Thirdly, we are introduced to the landscape, what their world is like for them, and now for us. More sequenced actions—told in a grid of smaller pictures—and the landscapes that take up one page or a full page spread begin to alternate randomly. The pages are divided into differently sized squares and rectangles for visual variation. Time slows down and speeds up depending on how much attention he wants us to pay to a particular event. If we are to watch an action in minute detail, we see multiple images: each image only slightly different from the one preceding it. We might see hands packing or a factory worker on an assembly line. His pictures and his pacing are exquisite.

I've been feeling the difference between words and images for awhile now. Reading only images is a quiet feeling, it works on a different level. We have to understand the meaning with our body and through our intuition, which has the potential to be confusing. In this particular case, the artwork and the choices are so perfect that the story is clear.

*previous post about Shaun Tan