BOOK REVIEWS (2013): Shaun Tan’s (2006) The Arrival

14 December 2013


The occidental fantasy of assimilation presented with none of the downsides.


Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to provide one when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To:  Shaun Tan’s (2006)[1] The Arrival

Shaun Tan can draw, of course, [2] and I find myself relieved that he dropped any pretense to verbal composition, since what he resorted to in his (2000)[3] Lost Thing and (2001)[4] The Red Tree both seem garish in their errors. I have to feel gladdest when Tan sticks to his defter medium: visual art. Here, he foregoes verbal text entirely—or, more precisely, what linguistic material appears in the text remains as alien to the foreign émigré as to the reader.

The book tracks the arrival of a stranger in a strange land—and the various alienations, misunderstandings, confusions, &c., that follow as the man tries to get a grip on his culture and ultimately reunites with his wife and daughter. The pretense allows Tan to indulge his talent for weird shapes and creatures, making the strange land a land strange even to the reader, which I find myself glad for.

On the inner cover of the book, Tan provides multiple photorealistic drawings of people of many nationalities,[5] but in the strange land the émigré find himself in, the only major distinction involves his lack of the native language (hence also no awareness of the customs). Thus, the experience of alienation Tan describes lacks crucially an element involved when people Other from the dominant race try to make a life in the world. Thus, in a sense, the stranger does not represent a stranger at all, but simply someone who merely cannot communicate. I recall nowhere in the book, for instance, where anyone rejects him (for any reason, much less for lacking the proper racial markers).

I could push this critique further. In his homeland—marked by the shadow of a dragon, where he abandons his wife and child to go to the new country—he has, exactly, all of the cultural markers that enable him to get accepted in the new country. He represents no queer nonconformist, no polygamist, no political Other, &c. This makes invisible how the ease of his assimilation gets greased by his already vetted normalcy. It allows the story to focus merely on his hard-work and to make invisible (1) that everyone accepts him solely in light of that willingness and (2) all of the people who were not treated so well when they were deemed or perceived as lacking that willingness or lacking the accepted markers of citizenship.[6] It allows enthusiastic critics to misconstrue a specific kind of immigration experience as “universal.”

I’ve mentioned already (in a footnote) the potentially sweet (or bitter) irony of the market-positioning of this book as a cross-over text, one marketed (if not designed) as an émigré itself that bridges Tan over from children’s book author to adult fiction but also from readers of literature to viewers of literature. If so, the predatory impulse of the local who takes advantage of the naiveté of the reader (newcomer) seems present as the book itself, though not as a theme in the book. But this also means that Tan himself stands as something of a naïf in the land of “adult literature” as well.

As I have noted elsewhere, in graphic novels one gets closer to the matter to say that the visuals lend all of the story to the story more than the text. However, as Dave McKean’s fantastic capacity for illustration shows in his (2010)[7] Cages, the person trained as a visual artist first usually has an underdeveloped (or non-developed) sense of what makes a story function in a linear way. Nearly one hundred years of comics have worked out a vast number of techniques and conventions for this, and it seems very evident to me that Tan does not have a knack for sequencing a story.

More precisely, the visual image cannot get nailed down—the richness of association that makes a picture worth a thousand words means that an artist—even one who does nothing but put a single dot somewhere on a page—cannot force a single interpretation on an image unless they include text. Text, as hopelessly mired in meaning-making machinery, provides a frame for the imagery that one must reckon with. We can claim it seems ambiguous; we can try to read it in different ways; we can note that the text contradicts other elements or elements in the picture—but it provides the fact of an absolute starting point of meaning, whatever meaning you, or me, or someone else decide upon. One can, of course, make linguistic texts ambiguous. But we do so by making multiple senses seems equally possible even as we pick one meaning, or vacillate between more than one, or whatnot. Meaning, however uncertain we treat it or make it, remains certain once we settle upon it.

Not so with visual images. Only because we possess something that resembles a vast vocabulary of conventional images do images begin to have any semblance of necessity in their meaning–think of any number of the proliferating crucifixions. So, just as it remains extraordinarily difficult to make a heap of words “unmean,” it also remains extraordinarily difficult for an image to settle only on one meaning.

Consequently, the naïve visual artist who thinks that two frames next to one another tell something like a linear story has gone hopelessly off into the woods. Nonetheless, readers acting like readers, will try to string the individual frames into some sort of a sense of a story. Thus Jeff Smith, if I remember, said the extraordinarily stupid thing on the back of Tan’s book to the effect that the story spooled out in a perfectly unambiguous way—a fine testimony to Smith’s unconsciousness about his own reading or his inattention. Doubtless, he pieced it all together in whatever way he did to make it a story he could understand, but even if he successfully inferred the whole plot exactly as Tan imagined it, that doesn’t make his the right reading, the only reading, or even the most probable reading one might give of the “text”.

This makes reading non-verbal graphic novels something of a Rorschach test. Even the haute poet, aspiring to maximal obscurity in her text, still generates meaning with a text, and a critic might submit the deftness of that meaning generation (if nothing else) to scrutiny. In Stein’s (1914)[8] Tender Buttons, which presumably has some discursive (private) meaning for Stein, it nonetheless brilliantly shows its paw (its hand) in how she opens up—or rather invites the reader—to generate their own (legitimate) meaning out of her text. That critics have likened her writing style as more akin to painting than writing dovetails with the point I make here about visual production.

This makes sequenced visual art fundamentally masturbatory, and luckily masturbation tends to the popular. No wonder that it emerged in such an industrially enormous way as comic books for boys. By masturbatory, I mean self-gratifying, although very often a visual artist—especially as in a case like Veitch’s (2005)[9] The Maximortal [10]does have something very specific to say. But one needn’t resort to texts; I would hardly venture to guess what Edward Gorey  aims to say with his (1963)[11] The West Wing, but I remain convinced he does have something specific to say. One can get a diffuse sense of creepiness or grandeur and talk for a long while about the meaning of ominous interior spaces and have the confidence of speaking somewhere near a consensus of popular and critical reaction to the work, and still not feel certain that the “meaning” of the book as intended by Gorey has gotten hit upon yet.

Gorey’s book works so well, in part, because he seems to understand that sequenced visual images (that do not continuously link together like  film does) automatically (so to speak) take on a polysemous or diffuse sense. In a word, they lend themselves to atmospherics, and Gorey’s The West Wing certainly plays up the atmospherics maximally. He has made the “core” of sequenced visual images the theme of his piece, in some sense, and that helps I say to generate a sense of connectedness overall that lends itself to a sense of “story” in a reader, even if that story still remains obscure and even unparaphrasable. Of course, Gorey’s book also takes the conceit of occurring in a mansion, which might as well have ghosts, but this, again, deftly thematizes the “core” of sequenced visuals (that have no words at all, I mean).

Such atmospherics do not play a central role in Tan’s book, so the greater part of the reaction that people have to it arises from the additions those readers supply, their fillings in of the gaps, and their interpolations. Hence the self-gratifying part of this book, if you enjoy doing that sort of thing for128 pages. But the diffuseness of this actually gets fucked up by the wrenching around Tan does in his effort to tell whatever story he aims to tell (without words). Analogically, this resembles cut-aways and intrusions into one’s porn clip that “ruin the mood”. We (readers) encounter this sort of thing often enough in literature—we experience some perturbation of our mood (the wilier authors do these on purpose, to keep as honest)—and then we have to wobble homeostatically to get back into whatever groove we were enjoying, &c.

I don’t mean to impugn the masturbatory delights of reading or to make a problem out of them exactly. But I do want to avoid giving credit to an author when the reader has done the salient work. And I do want to not forget how inadvertent authorial intrusions to get her story back on course, contrary to whatever drift or mood or near-orgasm we’ve achieved, shows an (forgivable) incompetence on the part of the author—a lack of awareness about the material, where the material has taken her reader, &c. Linguistic writers suffer this fate less frequently, more or less, because (again) any given sentence (for all that we try to make them ambiguous) remains far more unavoidably concrete. Thus, less at the level of the sentence itself, and more at the level of the construction of a mood or the plot at the level of paragraph does the linguistic artist lose track of his or her material, even as one reaches some sort of practical limit to this peril, since inattentive readers can make hash out of the most plainly blunt text at times anyway.

Hemingway makes a great exhibit of such incompetence, continuously assuming a particular point of view in his reader (essentially always the straight white male’s) in order to convey the effect of a scene, or whatnot. To give only one egregious example of this: since Jake Barnes has no nuts, therefore his sexual life forever after cannot exist, and Hemingway expects us automatically to sympathize with Jake for this, and perhaps even to excuse his sexism, antisemitism, and racism into the bargain for it. As Stephen Fry says about self-pity:[12]

Certainly the most destructive vice if you like, that a person can have. More than pride, which is supposedly the number one of the cardinal sins – is self-pity. Self-pity is the worst possible emotion anyone can have. And the most destructive. It is, to slightly paraphrase what Wilde said about hatred, and I think actually hatred’s a subset of self-pity and not the other way around: ‘ It destroys everything around it, except itself ‘.

I think it’s one of things we find unattractive about the American culture, a culture which I find mostly, extremely attractive, and I like Americans and I love being in America. But, just occasionally there will be some example of the absolutely ravening self-pity that they are capable of, and you see it in their talk shows. It’s an appalling spectacle, and it’s so self-destructive (from here).

The social valorization of self-pity remains far more grotesque and destructive than personal self-pity, as Fry notes. Let individuals wallow however they will, the greatest danger occurs when countries do it, as the US and Israel currently demonstrate in our appalling spectacle and Hemingway does in a literary spectacle. Tan does not wallow in self-pity, of course, but he does rely on a hopelessly normative template in his presuming attempt to de-lineate (literally) a story.

By contrast, Stanislaw Lem’s (1961) Return from the Stars (published originally in Poland) concerns the return of an astronaut to earth more than a century after his departure. He finds the world transformed into an inexplicable (perhaps) utopia. By placing the reader in the protagonist’s shoes, Lem gives us the opportunity to experience first-hand the strangeness and alienation of the world he has come back to, which itself marvelously introduces us to a world we (as readers) have never inhabited. Consequently, the protagonist’s gradual acculturation into the world becomes our own, which Lem accomplishes by more and more dropping the utterly forefronted weirdness of the written descriptions (and also by the fact that, in a written text, we the readers will tend not to imagine the weirdness that actually fills the world but will simply “assume the usual”—thus signaling our own acculturation to the world as well).

I kept remembering this book as I “read” Tan’s. The conceit of the Arrival involves that we too find ourselves plunged into a strange world with the protagonist, but subtly and importantly this does not happen as compellingly as in Lem’s text.

Above, I insisted that language (linguistic production) tends toward the helplessly concrete and thus mono-meaningful and that visual imagery tends toward the helplessly polysemous or multi-meaningful. Deft artists, of course, have divined how to exploit these properties. Lovecraft’s fiction depends very heavily on the (usually surreal) disjunction of him purporting to describe the indescribable—he puts down sequences of words that say things about looking upon a four-dimensional city, and the literal concreteness of that runs straight up into the impossibility of our actually imagining it. Instead, we imagine some funky simulacrum of a “four-dimensional” city, whatever that might look like, but the very impossibility of actually “seeing” what the words describe sets up one of the cornerstones of Lovecraft’s fiction. Similarly, in Gogol’s (1835/6) The Nose, where Kovalev awakes one day to discover his nose has disappeared off his face only to go gallivanting around St. Petersburg, we encounter  sentence like,

As Kovalev stood watching, before a mansion there stopped a carriage. And then a door of the carriage opened, and there leapt thence, huddling himself up, a uniformed nose, which uniformed nose then ran headlong up the mansion’s entrance-steps, and disappeared inside. To Kovalev’s horror, he recognized it as his own nose (from here, slightly modified).[13]

Whatever else one might say of this passage, exactly what one has just seen seems impossible to say; how does a nose (large or small?) get out of a carriage (does it float or have legs) in a uniform, &c. I understand that someone has adapted this story for the theatrical stage,[14] and a friend who saw it declared it brilliant. I don’t doubt it, but on reflection, I will also insist he did not see Gogol’s story, because as soon as one “sees” the nose in a concrete sense, one no longer inhabits the world of Gogol’s Nose, which renders impossible such literal seeing. I would compare this with Kafka’s (1915)[15] Metamorphosis, for while the surrealism of the text arises from the complete non-reaction of everyone in Gregor Samsa’s life to his transformation, the reader has little doubt if any that Samsa has indeed transformed into an ungeheures Ungeziefer. Thus, the horrific, the numinous, the fantastic  in Todorov’s (1973)[16] sense and the sublime–just to name a few things–all lend themselves especially well to evocation in texts. By this, one may generate a cognitive “paradox” in a text very, very easily, as Gogol demonstrates over and over; at another point, perhaps just a wee bit too cutesily, Gogol writes, “The Nose regarded Kovalev, and contracted its brows a little.” I say too cutesily here because we can hardly do anything except put some eyes and eyebrows on a nose and then have those brows contract; it remains still wholly incomprehensible what space the nose occupies, &c., but whatever the (unanswerable) answer to that, we can then stick on brows with no problem. I say this only to point out that the effect Gogol achieves with his nose getting out of a carriage does not get matched in strength by the nose waggling its brows.

If the linguistic writer can affect a sort of cognitive paradox very readily, the visual artist must resort to optical illusions. I want to characterize the effect exactly, however. With Gogol’s description, we  have the recurrent sense that whatever we imagine probably can’t actually hold. Out of a kind of desperation (or exasperation, or exhaustion), we might decide, “Okay, this is what the nose looks like” and leave it at that thereafter, but our desperation as a reader doesn’t mean we’ve done justice to the work. So, if any time we think “I’ve got it” it comes also with a little bird on our shoulder saying, “No, you don’t,” then this seems to resemble something like the effect of a (visual) optical illusion. In an illusion like “do you see a young lady or an old lady,” we might flip back and forth between either image, but both of them seem perfectly legitimate. If seeing the old lady makes us think, “No, that’s not the right one,” so we then focus on the young lady instead, either way we have a settled and definitive image we believe we should see. Gogol’s nose, by contrast,  doesn’t give us that luxury, even if we desperately settle on one inner mental image.

With optical illusions by Escher, where the image less involves some binary either/or and presents instead something we really can’t deconstruct or parse—like one of his endlessly ascending or descending staircases—then we find ourselves more in the kind of irresolvable “paradox” that Gogol presents linguistically. In the Escher case (staircase), as soon as we think, “I’ve got it,” the little bird appears again (or our attention shifts slightly) and we feel our certainty evaporate, to our delight or not or something else.

So visual artists very much can create the sort of Gogolian weirdness, but it involves a much more involved “abuse” of the rules of visual art, if you will. Far more frequently, as soon as one purports to represent the unrepresentable, the “impossibility” itself evaporates, as Cuthbard’s (2011)[17] not very convincing Cthulhu graphic novel demonstrates, unfortunately—though in all fairness, most film version of Lovecratian tales, the B-quality of many notwithstanding, merely veer into the ookiness of the stories rather than their potential for spookiness. Any number of horror writers have observed it all amounts to only suggesting to the movie-goer what lurks in the closet, &c; once you show it too fully, then the imaginative tension-air goes out of the suspense balloon, &c.

And so the attempt to depict “weirdness” visually tends, almost automatically, to veer off into surrealism, as we see in the best-realized Lovecraftian-type imagery—some of the ooky stuff in Moore’s (2012)[18] run with Totleben, Bissette, Veitch and others for Swamp Thing, for instance, in Jim Woodring’s work, like his (2001)[19] Congress of the Animals, in the frankly rather well-realized depictions of the Cthulhu mythos by Erol Otus in the original version of the Ward, Kuntz, and Schicks’s (1980)[20] Deities & Demigods for AD&D, and (yes) even in the blobulous weirdosity of Tan’s work elsewhere (and, sort of, here). I would distinguish, because distinctions help, between this sort of visual strangeness as surrealism (which Kafka’s Metamorphosis represents a literary example of) versus optical illusions (which Gogol’s The Nose embodies literarily). Surrealism presents a definite image, even if its precise or exact meaning remains difficult to pin down, while the optical illusion—or its generic equivalent in literature, the fantastic—comes with a distinct experience of hesitation that makes even pinning the meaning down an at best tentative venture.

I do not mean to suggest by this that surrealism exceeds the fantastic in significance or vice versa, especially since surrealism more often resembles a technique while the fantastic describes a genre. But notwithstanding the examples provided above from both literature and the visual arts for both surrealism and the fantastic, still we may more readily associate surrealism with visual art and the fantastic with linguistic art. Which, whatever counterexamples we might fin for this generalization, shows Tan’s Arrival as squarely in the surrealist camp.

For two reasons: for one, no matter how right or wrong we may feel about our interpretation of any given image in the book, the sheer visuality of the image makes itself real in a way that the linguistic fantastic specifically defeats. In Lem’s possible utopia, by contrast, we fall into a world where our best efforts to understand remain just as confounded as for the protagonist. In Tan’s work, by contrast, we have a third-person view—a move that makes perhaps impossible any real invocation of the fantastic (in Gogol’s sense or the sense of an optical illusion), so that we will tend not to identify with the Arrival’s protagonist, even though in theory we occupy the same boat as him. Whereas in the world of the fantastic, where—as Todorov notes—the narrative tends to collapse at the end into either a rationalist ultimate explanation or a supernatural one and only rarely will actually sustain the fantastic “mood” to the very end, with surrealism we find ourselves presented with an established meaning that we must become acclimatized to or just gloss over.

Politically, surrealism originally sought to effervesce language and positioned itself as part of the modernist impulse to find a foundation for meaning in a world unmoored by Nietzsche, Darwin, and World War I. Surrealism did not offer merely newly readymade slogans, but plumbed the unconscious in an attempt to actually create new meaning, which might then prove a base for future action and life. Thus, I see a very wide gap between the (political) aims of surrealism and what it sought to achieve compared to the depiction of the merely unfamiliar. The surrealists did not hope that the strange land seemed strange only because of a difference in language, i.e., that one simply had to learn a new way to decode culture. For them, the strange more resembled the alien.

In Tan’s book, the process of acculturation to the world occurs to a vastly greater degree for the protagonist in the story than for Tan’s readers (I would suggest), and thus offers a fundamentally conservative gesture. It reproduces the phenomenology of the Devil’s Bargain of assimilation, and the fact that it does so in such apparently heteronormative and white supremacist terms hardly seems surprising. Just as another book Tan worked on—Marsden’s (1998)[21] The Rabbits—erased aboriginal personalities from the text while ostensibly representing them, here we have something similar from the opposite side, since nowhere does culture change in acknowledgment of whatever culture the stranger brings to the strange land. This makes the denouement of Tan’s (2000)[22] Lost Thing that much more appalling all over again, since there the Other gets shunted off into some secret hideaway and gets represented as actually desiring and approving such incarceration.

I realize one can broadly object to this sort of point by saying, “Well, what else is an immigrant supposed to do?” but the very impossibility of considering imaginative alternatives by Tan—in this book and at least as well as in his Lost Thing—seems a real loss of opportunity. We might imagine that the superstructure wouldn’t permit the embodiment of such alternatives or—more likely—just wouldn’t throw gobs of money and marketing and penetration into the market to such embodiments. Because we might not forget that in one sense all of us embody émigrés who arrive as strangers from a strange land (in our mother’s womb) and then get subjected to colonization by the dominating culture, whatever race and species we embody. And the fact that children’s books play an important part in our early colonization makes our resistance to the kind of thematizing defeatism Tan indulges here (intentionally or not) that much more necessary.

One could also object that the happy ending, i.e., the reunion of the father with his wife and daughter—presents a dangerously idealized notion. Of course, the text gets read primarily by those already colonized and to the children of colonists; it less frequently gets read by those who would emigrate. So the happy ending serves less often to “seduce” foreigners to hazard coming to the strange land (because they will achieve the happy ending) and more to reassure the colonialists and their children that those who do immigrate have received fair treatment upon their arrival, which doesn’t usually prove the case. It certainly ignores completely that some classes of people simply weren’t permitted into the country at all, whether those now interdicted post-9/11 or those who once had entry denied them by the 1924 Johnson Immigration Bill, that excluded or severely restricted quotas for Jews, Italians, Greeks, Eastern Europeans, Slavs, and generally anyone not northern European, &c. None of that story is here; on the contrary, the land that receives people in Tan’s book seems positively contrasted with bad regimes people have left from.

The premise of the story reminds me also of a play I once saw, where a father left behind his wife and older daughter in National Socialist Germany to go to the United States. The play, written by a woman, hinges on the reunion of the father with the abandoned daughter years later, after his wife had died in the השואה. To my chagrin and ire, the playwright spent practically all of her time making everyone bend over backward to accommodate the father, written as a passive-aggressive heap of self-justifying arrogance for most of the play and then switching to an equally egocentric and self-pitying profession of guilt near the end–an unintentional caricature the whole time. Perhaps I needn’t say it, but I could not take seriously any sense of guilt in the father that made a deliberate choice, back in Germany, to leave his wife and daughter behind while escaping himself. That the daughter provides her own apologetics for the father’s behavior from her own point of view and for her murdered mother does not make the thing any more palatable.

That unfortunately memorable play resonated for me in the father’s decision in Tan’s book to leave his wife and daughter behind also in a country equally and ominously threatened by a dragon. In the one actual case of “anchor” immigration I know in considerable detail (in the rel world), a Vietnamese family sent their oldest child (a daughter) to the United States—more properly, she escaped to the United States. And once she established herself, she utilized the legal process of immigration for five more family members, including her parents. It strikes me as the more moral thing to do, as a parent, to stay behind in the dangerous country of origin and to send your children ahead, than (as the father of a family) to leave one’s wife (and another daughter) behind. It seems also an obvious credit to the Vietnamese family in question that they did not send their oldest son, but rather their oldest child–not playing sexist games with the fate of the children or family. So it seems very troubling to me—in Tan’s book and in the play I mention above—that a woman, a wife, would (perhaps like Tan’s lost thing) volunteer to stay behind. Patriarchally speaking, this happens because “women have no value or worth”; or, perhaps because husbands assume their wives will simply betray them, marry a local in the new place, and never send for them.

Thus, the happy ending in Tan’s book echoes against the “happy” ending in the loathsome play I saw, where reunion rests on the martyred body of an abandoned wife. Even at this level, which involves patriarchal sexism, we do not have to only blame the victim, because we can wonder about the systemic issues that make it impossible for whole families to travel together in the first place. Obviously, a more well-to-do family can afford passage for everyone, while the poor have to make an awful choice or sacrifice a family member—cue statistically speaking another dead wife—to emigrate.

All of this, of course, gets lost in the lush gush of enthusiasm by colonialists to listen to this tale of plucky foreigners assimilating to the Motherland. This book does not represent in any authentic way the experience of emigration but reflects instead the orientalist fantasy that the dominating culture wants to tell itself to feel good. And thus, much as in Marsden and Tan’s The Rabbits, where the villainous rabbits nevertheless have the coolest looking images of all, here too the very alienness of the receiving culture—not giving an inch to the newly arrived immigrant—gets given all of the visual awesomeness. The strangeness here remains awesome, rather than ominous; it all thrums with the marvelous and the modern, rather than reflecting even a tittle of hostility. The precious few images of the old country seem drab and boxy but, most of all, dominated by a terrible winding dragon—an absolute contrast with the strange (i.e., marvelous) owners of the (obviously) modern world.

But most of all I wanted to underscore, at least as far as a heap of visual frames in a sequence goes, that the story definitely melts into a background of incongruous mumblings. Jeff Smith may claim he followed the thing from start to finish with perfect clarity, which I doubt, but the whole thing becomes a vast heap of vague in fairly short order, and not just because we stand as strangers in a  strange land. I find it a testimony to the emptiness of the myth of immigration that this happens to the story—how one gets from the unhappy beginning of the Old Country to the happy ending of the new country remains essentially undepicted (undepictable?). In one of the more forthrightly critical émigré novels ever to appear in the United States, Limonov’s (1983)[23] It’s Me, Eddie, pulls no punches about the realities of emigration, especially lambasting Solzhenitsyn and Soviet physicist-dissident Andrei Sakharov for babbling some seriously and woefully naïve claims about how democracy (in the United States) works and what it promises and delivers. Nothing of the sort from Tan. And no wonder.

The fact that Tan provides no clear originating nationality for the family he depicts, but only whatever vague simulacrum of integration they manage in the receiving culture, makes for one of the deepest and most disheartening emblems of the book.[24] Secondmost disheartening involves the seemingly very strong possibility that Tan does not intend to so grotesquely reprise this (occidental) fantasy of immigration, but simply as a matter of course reproduces it.


[1] Tan, S. (2007). The arrival. New York: Arthur A Levine Books, pp. 1–128.

[2] I have to remark briefly, the back of this book has some fantastically stupid ad-text on it. Spiegelman blathers about the final full-growth of the graphic novel? In 2006? Of course, Jeff Smith says something idiotic—less of a surprise. But quite obviously, the market-mongers use Tan’s book to affect a cross-over into the crowd of those who normally eschew “picture books” or “comics” or “children’s books” as beneath them. One could almost enjoy the irony of this forced emigration—this deportation—of Tan’s book from its usual market toward an ‘adult contemporary” market, given that the book concerns itself with immigration—deportation and immigration sometimes (unfortunately) coinciding.

[3] Tan, S. (2004). Lost thing. [Vancouver]: Simply Read Books

[4] Tan, S. (2002). The red tree. Vancouver: Simply Read Books

[5] Unlike his other books, it looks often like he has resorted to reproducing, or copying, existing photos of people. A deft demonstration of his photorealistic talent—as if anyone doubted that?—and also an abrogation of his visual creative vision elsewhere demonstrated in his other books. This lapse into a rather boring conventionality no doubt assisted in the arrival of Tan’s Arrival on the “legitimate” bookshelves.

[6] Someone might gripe this criticism doesn’t seem fair because Tan did not set out to tell this particular story. Considering that he went uncharacteristically prolific with the number of illustrations in this book—it has some 128 pages, compared to less than 40 for most of his books, and featuring multiple pages with sometimes a very large number of frames—the notion that he had to resort to some economy of imagery and therefore had no “room” in the book to track the whole arc, say, of someone who did not physically resemble the natives of the new strange land seems indefensibly weak.

[7] McKean, D. (2010). Cages. Milwaukie, Or.: Dark Horse Books

[8] Stein, G. (1997). Tender buttons: objects, food, rooms. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications.

[9] Veitch, R. (2005). The maximortal (King Hell Heroica vol. 1). West Townshend, VT: King Hell Press

[10] Though primarily a visual artist, and while certainly at times going into the bog of the picture’s 1000 words without a way out, Veitch also used lots of text to try to nail down his ideas, also including an Afterword that explained some of the larger concepts at work in his work.

[11] Gorey, E. (2009). The west wing. 1st Bloomsbury USA ed. New York: Bloomsbury.

[12] Numerous famous people decry self-pity but fry specifically notes its occurrence on the American scene.

[13] The translation here doesn’t seem very spirited.

[14] Shostakovich composed an opera based upon it as well.

[15] Kafka, F. (1988). The complete stories. New York: Schocken Books.

[16] Todorov, T (1973). The fantastic: a structural approach to a literary genre (trans. Richard Howard). Cleveland, OH: Case Western Reserve University Press.

[17] Culbard, I., & Lovecraft, HP (2012). At the mountains of madness: a graphic novel. New York: Sterling

[18] Moore, A., Bissette, S., & Totleben, J., et al. (2012). Saga of the Swamp Thing. (volume 1). New York: DC Comics

[19] Woodring, J. (2011). Congress of the animals. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books.

[20] Ward, J. M., Kuntz, R. J., & Schick, L. (1980). Advanced dungeons & dragons, deities & demigods cyclopedia: special reference work. Lake Geneva, WI. : [New York]: TSR Games.

[21] Marsden, J., & Tan, S. (2003). The rabbits. [Vancouver]: Simply Read Books

[22] Tan, S. (2004). Lost thing. [Vancouver]: Simply Read Books.

[23] Limonov, E. (1983). It’s me, Eddie: a fictional memoir. New York: Random House

[24] Tan equips the daughter with a cap that might narrow her nationality. However, my point has less to do with establishing whatever actual nationality the depicted family might embody—because then one would want to know the difference of, say, Hungarian emigration compared to emigration from India or Cambodia or Cameroon—and more to do with the failure to incorporate any acknowledgment of some other national culture in the first place.

One Response to “BOOK REVIEWS (2013): Shaun Tan’s (2006) The Arrival”

  1. […] footnote: A very text-heavy, near academical exposition of this book can be found here. I was unable to figure out if the author was partly ditching Mr. Tan’s premise in The […]

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