The Arrival, by Shaun Tan, is the story of a young man who leaves his wife and children to come to a new city where everything is strange to him. He struggles at first, not knowing the language or the customs or even how to use the utensils, but eventually he finds work and friends, and is able to bring his wife and daughter over from the old country.
It’s a graphic novel, vaddevah dat means, and it is speculative fiction at its finest. The city that the Arrival finds is strange to us as well as to him. We can’t read the writing or figure out how to use the utensils, either. You can see some examples of Mr. Tan’s images on his web site for the book although (a) I don’t think the smaller images give any sense of the book itself, and (2) I wasn’t knocked out by the images so much as the narrative.
What Mr. Tan did was use fantasy to make the story universal. Of course, I am going to read the mysterious and magical city as being New York in the early 20th century, because that’s my family’s story, and I am going to read the hideous lizard-things from which he flees as Cossacks. But it works just as well as being Ireland and the English, or Manchuria and the Japanese, or Constantinople and the Christians. It’s magnificent, and it makes the story powerful in a way that a more realistic, finely detailed story might not be. The more real story might be powerful in a different way, of course; my own response to this story is conditioned by a powerful predisposition to like speculative fiction. The creator also is predisposed to tell the story that way, what he calls his “penchant for ‘strange lands’”. A perfect fit.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,