The Arrival

I should preface this post by saying that I am mostly ambivalent about the graphic novel as a genre. I am certainly not one of those who regard it as entirely devoid of artistic value, but I also fall significantly short of the opposite position that wants to characterize it as rejuvenating a too often stagnant and elitist literary culture. My admittedly limited experience with the graphic novel has not persuaded me that it is any different from other art forms as they are practised in our culture: capable of making significant artistic statements, certainly, but most often productive of mere amusement. Art Spiegelman’s Maus books are an example of graphic novels of the first sort. I also find most of Neil Gaimon’s books interesting, with a particular fondness for The Dream Hunters, a retelling of a Japanese myth that is illustrated by Yoshikata Amano. Beyond these, however, I have not usually been impressed by the narratives that form graphic novels, even if they are visually interesting at times.

Yesterday afternoon, however, I stumbled upon a graphic novel that is beautiful both visually and narratively, despite having no text at all. I was at the library with my two sons, and I happened to see Shaun Tan’s The Arrival out on a table as I was following my youngest on his energetically random path. I read as I followed, and I was soon utterly immersed in the story, in its blending of the fantastic and the familiar, in its almost tactile sense of intimacy.

The narrative is very simple. It follows a man who flees his country, leaving behind his wife and daughter, to begin a new life for them in a foreign land. Its simplicity is made compelling, however, by the beautiful way that the art attends to the smallest gestures of face and hand. A page often holds many small and discrete images that differ from each other only in subtle ways, and yet their progression forms a clear, intimate, and therefore powerful narration. In one very early sequence, for example, the daughter is shown in three stages of waking, then eating, then turning her head toward the next frame, which holds only the suitcase that her father has packed for his trip. There is then a frame of her father donning his hat and looking away from his daughter, followed by one of her mother tying her shawl and looking away from her husband. The next three frames are of the mother’s hands buttoning her daughters coat, the daughter’s hands pulling on her own boots, and the daughter lifting the suitcase to a father who is absent from the shot. The final frame is of the father from the perspective of his daughter, looking down at her, his hand extended to take the suitcase.

This sequence is a masterfully constructed narrative. The everyday activities of the girl’s morning interrupted by the glance at the suitcase. The characters isolated in their individual frames, never joining each other, almost always looking away from each other. The girl handing the suitcase to the already absent father. The father receiving it from the already absent daughter. The whole sequence emphasizes the aloneness of the characters in the face of the coming departure, a departure that has separated them before it has even occurred. This sort of pictorial narrative is made effective by a relentless attention to the intimate details of faces and hands. Each expression and gesture is made to speak a visual language that is almost evocative of a choreography. The characters seem less to move from frame to frame than to shift from pose to pose, telling a story in a kind of lived dance. The effect is beautiful and compelling.

Tan also changes the depth of field in ways that are very effective and that function as a kind of narration in their own right. The sequence in which we discover that the man is aboard a ship to the new land, for example, opens with a close frame of the family photo that the man has packed. The next frame broadens to include the hand of the man as he eats his soup. The next broadens further to show the whole of the man and the gaze that he has fixed on the photo as it sits atop his suitcase. The fourth recedes through the porthole window, through which the man is looking. The frames then continue to recede: the porthole becoming smaller as the ship becomes larger, until the man’s one window is lost among the many windows in the massiveness of the steamer’s side. The sequence is effective enough on its own, but Tan follows this series of smaller images with a huge picture that includes both of the following pages, representing the ship, which had grown massive in comparison to the porthole, as small in itself against the hugeness of the sea and of the sky and of a cloud that fills most of the picture. The effect is powerful. I almost exclaimed aloud in the library as I was reading, so completely does the shift from the smaller images to the much larger one accomplish the diminishment of the one solitary man into the hugeness of the vessel and, in turn, into the hugeness of nature itself. This effect is then further heightened by the following two pages, which are filled entirely with sixty small, tile-like pictures of clouds, where the ship and everything else disappears altogether, and then is reversed by the next two images, which recede to a single page of the ship at sea and a single page of passengers on the ship’s deck. The focus continues to narrow on the next pages, through several smaller frames of individual passenger groups, then to the man himself, and finally to his hands as they write to his absent family.

Again, the narrative here is accomplished beautifully. It establishes an effective frame, beginning and ending with the man’s only connections to his absent family: the photo and the letter. Between these markers it stretches his loneliness through the vastness of the ship, of the sea, of the clouds, and of the huddled and anonymous mass of his fellow passengers. His smallness and isolation are made almost palpable, as are the tenuous threads that hold him to himself. There is nothing, the sequence makes clear, that keeps him from disappearing entirely into the massiveness of the unknown world except the family who exists for him now only through the fragility of pictures and letters. These kinds of sequences drive the book narratively despite or even because there is no textual narrative at all.

However effective the art is narratively, however, it would be unfair of me if I were not to comment also on its visual beauty as well. The images are all distinct and framed, like old pictures in an album, an effect heightened by the black and white and sepia tones, by the kinds of creases and blurring that can be found in many old photos, and, in some places, by borders that are meant to portray the frames explicitly as photos. This photographic quality is further reinforced by a beautifully realistic style and by the costumes and culture of the man’s homeland, which look very much like those of England in the early 1900’s. These elements all contribute to the sense that the reader is following the history of some family member as told through an old picture album. The effect is disarmingly intimate.

However, all of this familiarity is contrasted by many elements that are entirely fantastical. The man is driven from his home by long, spiky tentacles, for example. He meets those who have fled colossal giants that suck people into barrels of flame through huge vacuums. The new country to which he flees is itself an eerily beautiful fantasy, entirely original and different from his own. On a certain level, these fantasy elements function to represent the strangeness that any immigrant feels when arriving in a new culture, but they have a larger effect also. They make the story surreal enough to surprise its readers in a culture that is so saturated by knowledge that it is often incapable of surprise any longer. No foreign culture would be foreign enough to surprise us, but Tan’s fantastical foreignness forces us to see and experience apart from our expectations. We find ourselves surprised in the midst of what had seemed to be a familiarity.

There is, of course, no way that my writing can hope to do justice to what Tan has done visually. The Arrival, like any literature worth reading, needs to be read on its own terms. Even so, I hope that I have at least succeeded in making Tan’s book intriguing enough that others will go and read it themselves. It is well worth a place in any library.

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