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The Lost Thing

The Lost Thing back

Shaun Tan


Page 45 Review by Stephen

"I played with the thing for most of the afternoon. It was great fun, yet I couldn't help feeling that something wasn't quite right. As the hours slouched by, it seemed less and less likely that anybody was coming to take the thing home. There was no denying the unhappy truth of the situation. It was lost."

Bless. There's so much heart and humanity in Shaun Tan's work - an enormous amount of design work, and quite a lot of mischief as well. For a start he resolutely refuses to inform his readership what the book is about on the French flaps, and his postcard to Pete on the back (from Greater Suburbia) is equally playful. There are plenty of clues, though, in the form of commands: strict instructions to "INSERT MESSAGE", "MAIL THIS WAY", "print clearly", and you're told exactly how to shelve the book. I'd make sure it's filed under fiction. You don't want it mixed up with the autobiography or politics.

We'll get to the story in a bit (I believe that we must: it's what proper reviews do), but first we're informed that "This book is intended to serve as an introduction text-book for students preparing for the first examination in the subject of hear engines and applied thermodynamics". Well perhaps, but someone's gone and torn the mechanical diagrams, algebra and mathematical tables into strips, seemingly soaked them in tea than pasted them higgledy-piggledy on top of each other forming a collage of margins and gutters on which the main story sits. They probably weren't meant to do that. Fortunately Shaun is much more orderly, having arranged his bottle-top collection very neatly indeed on the inside front-cover.

It was while strolling past the beach one afternoon, scanning the pavement for those treasured bottle-tops that the young lad looked up (purely by chance) and first spied the Lost Thing "looking out of place" on the sand. I couldn't really tell you what it was; nor could Shaun. It looked like some sort of giant cephalopod housed in a big iron boiler vaguely the shape of a teapot. A bit like an industrialised hermit crab. Anyway, since no one came to claim it, and no one else seemed to notice or care, Shaun took it to his friend Pete, but Pete didn't know what it was, either. His parents didn't even want to know and if it hadn't been for the advertisement on the back of the newspaper, Shaun would have been at a complete loss as to what he was supposed to do with it. Fortunately the advertisers knew exactly what to do with things like that, so off the next morning they dutifully trot…

So many of Shaun's familiar themes manifest themselves here, including the man-made overshadowing nature (see TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA and THE RABBITS). The beach, for example, is a thin strip cluttered with industrial this, that and the other (the life guard is hilarious) lying not below chalky cliffs or a dune-strewn grassland, but a gigantic concrete dam thrust-through with iron pipes which have stained it with rust. And above? A vast city packed tight with skyscrapers crammed so close together the sky doesn't get a look in. Tan's work always rewards scrutiny: so many background details! Signs prohibiting stuff, advertisements for Red Tape (no self-respecting bureaucracy should be without it), public service announcements like "Know Your Diodes", Homogenous Equation notice boards, telling statues and a big banner proclaiming, "TODAY IS THE TOMORROW YOU WERE PROMISED YESTERDAY" (originally Victor Burgin). And the paintings themselves are beautiful and often quite absurd, like Shaun, Pete and the Lost Thing perched on Pete's small suburban rooftop.

It's funny, it's wondrous and it's yet another celebration of the diverse, the different - a fun-poking finger-wagging on how we like to arrange things, compartmentalise things, categorise things, pigeon-hole things, file things away then forget about them. And by "things", of course, I mean "people".