Desiring Perception: Finding Utopian Impulses in Shaun Tan's the Lost Thing

By Dudek, Debra | Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Desiring Perception: Finding Utopian Impulses in Shaun Tan's the Lost Thing


Dudek, Debra, Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature


In his picture book The Lost Thing (2000), Shaun Tan visually depicts a futuristic Melbourne, Australia as a dystopic industrialised modernist cityscape. Melbourne flattens into a sepia-toned city comprising buildings and people that echo each other in their rectangular uniformity. Rounded edges exist as pipes and dials and the tops of umbrellas; the overwhelming ethos of this place is a world of boxes and machinery. There is but one space of relief and difference, which is named Ut[??]qIA. Here cages perched in tea-cups sprout wings, dirigibles gesture with dangling limbs, a peeled banana with a light bulb head chases a miniature space ship. It is a world of fluidity and delight and difference and play. In this paper, I shall investigate the poetics of these two sites and shall argue that utopian impulses exist in the characters of the child, the artist, and the hybrid custodian, all of whom act as figures of resistance and hope in a dystopian world ruled by rigid and repetitive empirical discourses.

In their introduction to Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, titled 'Dystopia and Histories', Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan utilise Lyman Sargent's definitions of utopia, eutopia, anti-utopia, dystopia, and critical dystopia. (2) For the purposes of this essay, I am most interested in the critical dystopia designation, which Sargent defines as 'a non-existent society described in considerable detail and normally located in time and space that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as worse than the contemporary society but that normally includes at least one eutopian enclave or holds out hope that the dystopia can be overcome and replaced with a eutopia' (2003, p. 7). Baccolini and Moylan elaborate on this definition by speaking of a 'utopian impulse' within critical dystopias, and it is this impulse that pervades The Lost Thing; a utopian enclave exists and remains behind closed doors, but three figures of resistance move within this dystopia and provide a utopian impulse in the text, an impulse that translates into the pleasure of the reading act, which seeps into the dystopian narrative.

Given that one of the crucial aspects of the critical dystopia is the presence of the utopian impulse, I need to define the utopian impulse that is specific to The Lost Thing. In his article, 'Science Fiction and Utopia: A Historico-Philosophical Overview' Carl Freedman distinguishes between three meanings of the term 'Utopia': 'a generic meaning, a political-economic meaning and a philosophical and hermeneutic meaning' (2001, p.72). In the generic description, Freedman traces the history of the literary genre from Thomas More's Utopia (1516) through Frankenstein (1816) and Gulliver's Travels (1726) and on to more recent texts, such as H.G. Well's A Modern Utopia (1905) and Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974). Freedman attributes the political-economic meaning to Marx and Engels' deprecation of a non-scientific socialism as 'utopian', and he identifies Ernst Bloch as the most important philosopher of the utopian hermeneutic, which can be understood as 'not so much a matter of description or planning as it is a way of thinking and of reading ...' (2001, p.73). This concept of Utopia as a way of privileging the act of reading forms the basis of Tan's visual poetics. The Lost Thing urges the reader to engage in a radical act of reading that defies linearity; while the narrative may follow a seemingly linear trajectory, the composition of each page challenges the reader to move beyond the linear narrative and into the layered margins.

Each page, except for one page that represents newspaper advertisements and two pages that represent Ut[??]qIA, uses as the background a collage of 'Dad's old physics and engineering textbooks', which is overlaid with the visual painted text and the narrator's hand-written text. In effect, then, each page contains three texts, which can be read separately and in conjunction with each other: the narrator's story unfolds in sentences printed to lined, or ruled, notebook paper seemingly cut and pasted on top of the background collage; the collage of physics and engineering texts underlie and supplement the paintings especially; and the paintings themselves are richly-textured, detailed depictions of a machinistic, industrialized cityscape. …

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