(from The Red Tree)
Lost & Found : 3 by Shaun Tan
Arthur A Levine Books, 2011.
A Shaun Tan book is a joy for ever. Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness. [L & Keats] Yes, I’ve a grand love for Shaun Tan’s work. His words and his artwork really resonate with me. When the daughter and I were at the library for the sole purpose of checking out audio-books for our road trip this weekend, I did the habitual quick scan of the “New Releases” Shelf in Juvenile. It is right by check-out. And really, I can’t not pick up a Shaun Tan book, if only to hold it for a little while. I brought Lost & Found home.
Lost & Found is a collection of three stories: The Red Tree (2001), The Lost Thing (2000), The Rabbits (1998, words by John Marden). As Shaun Tan writes in the “Author’s Notes:”
Each story could be said to be about the relationship between people and places, especially when that relationship is ruptured by physical displacement, an emotional disconnection, or an otherwise trouble sense of identity; a country invaded by aggressive strangers, a homeless creature, and a girl adrift in the world of her own dark emotions. They are each in their own way tales of loss and recovery, and a question about belonging in the absence of any direct language–where central characters hardly speak–as though some things are too strange, personal, or confronting for words.
Out of three stories, The Red Tree is the most difficult for me to find proper words. It feels rather personal to talk about this story, even though it was Tan who provided the words and images.
“I wanted to create something useful from what can seem to be a uselsess experience–an abject feeling of hopelessness–but more important, to simply acknowledge its reality, its strange distortions of persepctive and reason, and illuminate something that is often invisible. I intended my paintings to be honest reflections, without any didactic or moral message, and open to multiple interpretations by different readers.”
While there is an inkling of hopefulness in the symbol of the little red leaf throughout the story’s images, it is fairly swallowed up by the senses of vulnerability, of isolation. But at the end of the day, seemingly out of nowhere, hope is there and in full blossom. It is no less impossible or improbable than anything else witnessed or felt on previous pages.
The Lost Thing is a lighter piece, more casual in approach, whimsical and fun. A young man has a story to tell about a “rather ordinary day by the beach.” He was out working on his bottle-cap collection when he “for no particular reason” looked up and saw “the thing.” This thing, not unfriendly, was evidently out of place and lost. No one was minding it, no one knew where it came from or to whom the thing belonged. After a long day of playing together (love the sand city they build), the young man takes the lost thing home.
But it can hardly stay. So using the card with suggested directions as to where to take the thing, the young man goes there. But an odd figure has better advice for the caring young man: a different place, an obscured place. And so the lost thing and the young man follow the squiggly arrow to a button, which opens a door to a fantastic place full of odd and lost things of varying degree of fancy. They said good-bye, the lost thing much more receptive to this destination versus the other, and that was it. “Well, that’s it. That’s the story. Not especially profound, I know, but I never said it was. And don’t ask me what the moral is.”
The young man gets back on his tram still thinking about the lost thing, until the thinking becomes occasional, until he stops noticing “the something out of the corner of my eye that doesn’t quite fit.” The tram, in a series of four subsequent illustrations, slowly joins the masses of trams in the dark. “Maybe I’ve just stopped noticing them. Too busy doing other stuff, I guess.” Yep, the melancholy ending to a casual outing, a whimsical find. He becomes the lost thing without it.
There are several lovely moments in this story, both sweet and haunting. One of my favorite is nearest the end, looking through the tram doors outward onto a street corner. The text below says, “You know, something with a weird, sad, lost sort of look.” On the street corner is an alien-looking creature at a mailbox. It has a small light looking into the opening. I faces it against the direction of a painted arrow on the street. You can see the thing is unusual and ignored through the multiple windows of the tram, but caught in a window frame with the thing is a man who looks to be waiting by a bus-stop pole, arm up, head down, looking at his watch. He, too, sort of looks sad and lost there in the corner of the window; a member of the story’s shift to who or what is as lost as the marvelous thing the young man finds.
Note: as with Tales from Outer Suburbia, when Tan makes the effort to illustrate a newspaper, take time to read the text surrounding the one one he has centered for you. He has a sharp sense of humor.
Just when you don’t think you can take anymore beautiful writing or gorgeous imagery, there is The Rabbits. This story has one of the best opening lines: “The Rabbits came many grandparents ago.” The author of this piece, John Marsden, notes that he was influenced by a book called A Sorrow in Our Heart by Allan W. Eckert, a book about Tecumseh, a Native American warrior, and his people. He was drawn to think about the Native’s plight in North America, and again of the Aboriginal’s plight in his native Australia. “There [is] an obvious similarity between the humans and the animals, and it seemed to me that telling the story of rabbits–rather than people– would be a better way of illustrating the damage done by invaders and colonists.” It is told with the soft rhythms of a traditional oral tale–so lovely and so heart-breaking.
Marsden’s words met with Shaun Tan’s studies of postcolonial art and literature at university. “I was able to crystallize some of these interests around John’s enigmatic text, and build on further research into colonial history, which occasionally does read like science fiction.” Tan provides a visual context, an incredible setting that portrays a past, and a present. The science-fictional aspects create a visual relevancy–a sense of not-too-distant past and future-possibility. There is a delightfully strange mix of curving warm Tribal and angular cold Futurist. The images of doom equally excite, to disturbing effect–is it our training to respond to such imagery? There is also a bit of propaganda art? (my lack of art education showing. I really need to pair up on these reviews with the husband.)
While The Rabbits would be brilliant in any classroom history course, elementary through university, the story belongs to several other discourses as well. To keep quoting the eloquent Mr. Tan,
“The Rabbits is a story of universes collindg: one culture driven by powerful technology that transcends nature (much like our own), and another whose spirit is embedded in a an ancient ecology. The conflict between the two is, I think, a central concern of our age, one that exists far beyond the Australian landscape of deserts and billabongs that inspired my paintings and John’s words. Aside from historical issues of race or politics, The Rabbits is about a deep environmental crisis, a crisis of conscience, and a costly failure of communication. At the end the question of reconciliation is left open to the reader as it is in the real world: The future, as always, remains undecided.”
“The future, as always, remains undecided,” is an important thematic thread within the three stories of Lost & Found. For all the melancholy, the depressed, the isolated, for all the violence, for all that is lost, hope is found in the open ending, in the possibility, in that which “remains undecided.”
If you are unfamiliar with Shaun Tan’s work, remedy this. He images the most probable things in the most impossible ways, and can it look any more familiar? Shaun Tan is talented; his work, it’s beautiful.