Arthur A. Levine Books, 2007, 128 pages, C$24.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-439-89529-3
It’s easy to talk in clichés when discussing Shaun Tan’s The Arrival: Pictures are worth a thousand words; Form follows function; Silence is more eloquent than words; The true meaning of a Graphic Novel.
And that’s not even discussing how good it is. Then it’s all about sui generis; a minor masterpiece; a visual feast; a young adult title that will appeal to adults and so on.
But, to use one more cliché, you can believe the hype.
The object itself leaves an impression before even opening the cover. It’s gorgeously designed as a faux-vintage photo album, all in sepia tones and tattered edges. The cover illustration would be a perfect match for archival photography, if it wasn’t for the strange white animal looking up at the man with the suitcase.
Confusion only continues with the first few pages. The endpapers show sixty mugshots, presenting people of different ethnicity all looking at us. When the book itself begins, it does so with a mixture of writing in a strange alphabet, with official-looking stamps bearing the usual publisher’s information. Somewhere in a box stamped “Inspection”, we find the following summary for library cataloguers: “In this wordless graphic novel, a man leaves his homeland and sets off for a new country, where he must build a new life for himself and his family.”
But words quickly become irrelevant as The Arrival truly starts. In small silent portraits, Tan efficiently sketches the portrait of a family on the brink of a major change. A man packs his belongings in a suitcase, embraces his wife, says goodbye to his daughter. Overhead, gigantic spiked tails suggest a gathering threat.
The boat journey to elsewhere is uneventful, but the man’s arrival in his new country leads him to an Ellis Island-inspired sequence where he is herded, processed, inspected, evaluated, photographed and then freed in a bustling metropolis where everything is beyond strangeness.
And that also goes for us, because The Arrival is quite simply not taking place in any world we can recognize. Beyond the received stereotypes of what it must have been like to immigrate to New York in the early twentieth century, Tan’s imagined world escapes easy understanding. The immigrant doesn’t understand anything, and neither do we: not only is the alphabet different, but animals have strange unusual shapes, foodstuff isn’t recognizable as such and social conventions have to be learnt anew. It’s hard to imagine any other approach doing better in presenting to us the culture shock that immigrants must feel after their arrival in their new countries.
It’s a tough life (being effectively illiterate has surprising disadvantages), but Tan is careful to avoid any meanness in his work. The immigrant protagonist keeps on meeting people and making friends, lending to The Arrival an atmosphere of pleasant optimism that works better than the required gloom that seems to accompany just about any tale of immigration nowadays.
Beyond the story, it’s difficult to say enough good things about the exceptional quality of Tan’s art. Pages of small photo-like drawings often alternate with gobsmacking page-sized art that can work as stand-alone pieces. (Indeed, that’s how I first saw Tan’s work: As part of the Art Exhibition at the 2007 World Fantasy Convention, where he won a Fantasy Award in the Best Artist category.) Fantasy fans will be particularly amazed at some of the imagery used to represent the strange new world. The gigantic machinery and sculptures surrounding the characters are impressive (especially seeing how they fit the voluntarily retro style of the drawings) but it’s the small details, the alphabet, the food and the pets, that really clinch the impression of something truly strange. That it works within Tan’s story of lessening alienation is what makes this book such a success, between art-book and graphic novel. The art is fantastically well detailed, and the story is compelling in its own right: the result benefits from the strengths of both forms.
That The Arrival also works equally well with younger and older readers is just another reason to take a look at it. The Arrival has already started to get a decent following, landing on several Year’s Best lists, and there’s no reason to avoid following the crowd about this one. It’s one of those books that sticks in mind, impresses visitors, shows good taste and will be re-read regularly.