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Slaying Monsters in Fiction

The artist, author, and illustrator Shaun Tan has several images of gigantic monstrous beasts in his work, but my favorite is in his picture book The Red Tree, where a little girl with red hair–the story’s protagonist–walks down the street while over her looms a dour grayskinned trout the size of an ocean liner, its mouth agape in what I always imagine to be an extended, engulfing, loathsome moan.  

The creature in the scene is a kind of weather, a ceiling on the world, inescapable and impressive in its vastness. By its mere presence, it changes the whole scale of the picture, dwarfs the apparent subject (and the viewer). It acts by being, a character and a setting in one, and it throws anyone who confronts it into sudden definition: do they flee? Fight? Or, like the pictured girl, are they brought under the creature’s influence, their moods and chemistries pulled, like the tides, by the gravity of a distant body, alien and unknowable perhaps, but impossible to ignore?  

We see ourselves in the big things of this world–look for faces in clouds and cliffsides, give our human-shaped gods chariots to carry the sun and tridents to style the waves. We picture the arms of great trees throwing apples or raised in a midnight dance. If a monster truly came, some of us would worship it. Others would identify with it to the point of psychic death. 

Monstrous beasts exert the same level of influence on the stories that contain them as they do on the fellow inhabitants of those stories and the settings where they occur. If Chekhov demands that the gun on the mantel be fired, then Melville demands that Moby Dick be catalogued, the whole of whaledom surveyed like a country being mapped. When a story’s monster isn’t captured in a net of verbiage, then that absence informs what remains, a shadow cast on the pages from above. No matter what, we will not allow a monstrous beast to roam through narrative unscathed. Symbolism will fly at it from all directions, yet the creature will refuse to collapse into a single explanation. It will acquire meanings, yet remain (somehow) stubbornly itself. When a monstrous beast appears in a story, then it becomes, at least in part, what that story is about. 

Two recent novels contain, and are shaped by, monstrous beasts: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro and Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. Set in immediately post-Arthurian England and a dystopic future hellscape, respectively, they might not have much in common if they didn’t feature behemoths endowed with unearthly powers. But it is only those behemoths that make these novels possible at all. 

One might be fooled into thinking that The Buried Giant isn’t about a dragon. The novel, when it begins, is the story of a marriage. An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, love each other dearly, but tragedy haunts their past. Perhaps they once had a son and lost him? Their dearth of memory sends them on an ill-conceived quest to find their way to his village. The stakes are high, but limited in scope–personal, not global. 

That is, until we discover the dragon at the heart of all this. Instead of smashing huts and castles, the she-dragon Querig has seeped her way through every barricade, insidiously polluting the atmosphere inside of people’s heads. Querig’s special ability is to breathe a Mist of Forgetfulness, fogging minds of the characters, erasing the past–yet strangely, allowing the previously warring Briton and Saxon tribes to live alongside each other in peace. Late in the novel, we learn that Querig’s presence is inextricably tied to King Arthur’s legacy of peace. The dragon was deliberately enchanted by Merlin in order to perform her ordained task, so “the bones [of war would] lie sheltered under a pleasant green carpet… long enough for old wounds to heal forever and an eternal peace to hold.” So long as Querig has “breath left, she does her duty.” 

Is the Mist a curse or a blessing? It is a force, and to stop it requires the slaying of a god. 

Sir Gawain, Querig’s supposed challenger, has been living a lie for decades. Though he claims that he and his horse Horace “have bided their time,” “have laid careful plans to lure [Querig] out and…seek no assistance,” nothing could be further from the truth. Arthur himself appointed Gawain as Querig’s protector, and Gawain will die before he sees her slain. When a new challenger, this time a real one, arises in the form of the warrior Wistan, Wistan’s persistent doubts and suspicions about Arthur’s peaceful legacy bring the matter to light. 

Spoiler: this doesn’t end well for Gawain, or for Querig. But the violence that unfolds takes on the qualities of the creature at its center. In a virtuosic description, Ishiguro renders Querig “emaciated,” “worm-like,” and “dehydrating,” “the remnants of her wings…sagging folds of skin that a careless glance might have taken for dead leaves.” Querig is the forgotten thing at the center of the forgetting she herself generates: impotent, absent, hardly recognizable as a dragon. Beatrice wonders aloud, “Can this really be her, Axl? […] This poor creature no more than a fleshy thread?” There is nothing assertive or combative in Querig. The mechanism of her power is to just keep breathing. She is nothing but a lung: as fragile, as essential. So when death comes to this book, it is without catharsis. It is a mere stopping of that breath. 

Sir Gawain falls first. An aged knight, he asks permission to unsheathe his sword before the duel with Wistan commences, to avoid humiliation (Wistan graciously allows it). The clash is brief, and when Gawain succumbs, he “struggle[s] for a moment, like a man in his sleep trying to make himself more comfortable,” then finally seems “content.” Wistan may hate everything Querig stands for, but the killing blow he inflicts resembles her Mist, wiping away all pain and strife and replacing it with an unconsciousness that leaves the affected soothed and stilled. 

When Querig dies, it is anticlimax upon anticlimax; she puts up less of a fight than Gawain. Motionless but for her rhythmic breathing and the steady blinking of her eye–“hooded in the manner of a turtle’s”–she lies on the floor of her pit while Wistain walks up to her and with “a swift, low arc in passing,” effortlessly decapitates her. 

At the time of The Buried Giant’s publication, Ursula K. Le Guin responded to a comment Ishiguro made about the book (“Are they going to say this is fantasy?”) by writing, “It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, ‘Are they going to say I’m a tight-rope walker?’ ” Genre squabbling aside, Le Guin’s statement has lingered with me because of what it perhaps unintentionally captures about the peculiar nature of this book. Because, in a sense, Ishiguro does create a scenario like the one Le Guin proposes. He sets the stage for spectacle at dazzling heights, then presents us with players too ancient, too confused, to perform their chosen roles–to do anything but hand themselves over to merciless gravity and time. A man plummeting to his death, no longer certain about who he once was or how he’ll be remembered, is a man fallen victim to Querig…a man not unlike Querig herself.  

Just as Querig’s age and forgetfulness infuse the whole of The Buried Giant, the exact opposite qualities–youth, curiosity, hunger, and enthusiasm–underscore so much of Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. It’s no coincidence these are the very qualities possessed by the titular character.  

Borne begins life “dark purple and about the size of [a] fist…like a half-closed stranded sea anemone,” but under the tutelage of Rachel, a scavenging human who adopts him, this shapeshifting organism learns and grows rapidly. Like some strange hybrid of all that lives, he is eager to take nourishment of any kind – compost worms, pebbles, scraps of wood– into his gelatinous core. But he is unique among living beings in that nothing comes out of him: no waste, no emissions.  

This literally all-consuming tendency would be terrifying if he weren’t just so cute. The first time Borne does something violent, it is to eat a team of young home-invaders who have been torturing his mom. Using the voice of one of these ingested assailants, he says, “I am Borne. I talking talking talking.” He also tells Rachel not to be afraid.  

As he continues to get bigger, his hunger for multi-celled lifeforms shrinks in comparison to his hunger for knowledge, which gets played out in whimsical, absurdist dialogues with his ersatz parent. “Borne didn’t know what serious was,” Rachel observes. Even when he ultimately begins ingesting other humans, Borne explains that he tries “to only kill evil people,” but more importantly, he doesn’t concede Rachel’s version of events: “I killed them but they’re not dead…I don’t think they will ever die.”  

Borne is alien, unknowable, but the very limits of his knowability exclude the possibility of human guile. He operates like nature unspoiled, a pristine wilderness incarnate in the form of a creature: a walking, talking web of life in which much is gained but nothing is lost. The result is a novel that feels weirdly innocent–weirdly being the key word. Because there is true darkness in this book too, and it comes from the novel’s other monstrous beast: the flying bear Mord. 

Mord is a destructive flying bear the size of a zeppelin. Foul-breathed, encrusted with refuse, he is beyond reason: madness has overcome the “toxic waste dump of his mind.” This is his punishment and his curse; once “curious about so many things,” he compromised himself irrevocably by working for the Company, a menacing entity that churned out irresponsible biotech, leading inevitably to the ruined state of the novel’s world. Now he has proxies that look like him and obey the commands of his blinding, incoherent rage. He is corrupted, contaminated, and though pitiable, he cannot be saved. 

As a result, the book’s final showdown between Borne and Mord functions like a battle between nature and pollution, creation and destruction. “There comes a moment when you witness events so epic you don’t know how to place them in the cosmos,” Rachel comments, and she’s not overselling the drama. Towering over the burning city, the creatures clash, until, like the compost worms Borne himself once consumed, Borne at last engulfs Mord, swallowing the beast entire–and causing both of them to vanish spontaneously. 

Because Borne is a child, the story that contains him takes on childlike qualities. It’s simple, brightly colored, a fable that could be performed brilliantly with stop-motion toys or puppets. I say that not as criticism but as high praise. Iconic, but also breathtakingly, astoundingly, bizarrely new, Borne is a rare book that delivers the surprise of true wonder that’s at the heart of seeing the world with fresh eyes. In fact, it’s no coincidence that one vaguely human feature the shapeshifting Borne decides to adopt is a ring of eyes, which encircle his body like a belt–“blue, black, brown, green pupils, and some were animal eyes, but he could see through all of them.” Though the Mad Hatter claims that “I see what I eat” isn’t the same as “I eat what I see,” the two kinds of voraciousness–abstract curiosity and physical hunger – feed on each other in Borne until he at last outgrows the story he’s in. 

By conjuring monstrous beasts in the pages their novels, Ishiguro and VanderMeer endow their stories with vast scope. Each creature also gives its story’s world an aesthetic center around which other elements can orbit. Though the two novels couldn’t be more different, they’re united in this… and also in the humility that comes with placing the lives of human characters in perspective against larger forces. Like the little girl in The Red Tree, these novels’ human characters walk in the shadow of the incomprehensible–as do we all.

Image: Wikimedia

The Millions Interview: Shaun Tan

The work of Shaun Tan, the Australian children’s book illustrator, recalls Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton, but with a mature sad-humored control.  It’s a tone that pervades The Lost Thing, an animated adaptation of Tan’s 1999 book of the same name, which won an Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards.  It’s the tale of a young man in a post-industrial landscape who discovers a neglected many-tentacled playful cyborg on a beach.  This month, that and two of his other older children’s books, The Red Tree (2001), a meditation on loneliness, and the John Marsden-authored The Rabbits (1998), an allegory for the plight of the Aborigine, are enjoying a wide release in America in a one-book compendium Lost and Found: Three by Shaun Tan.  These are the kinds of children’s books over which you obsess over the details of the pages’ margins.

Tan, who lives in Melbourne, answered some questions by email.

The Millions: I have heard graphic novelists express surprise at the extreme difference in both form and method between animation and bookmaking. Is there anything that seems amazingly obvious to you now that you didn’t realize before you began making the animated version of The Lost Thing?

Shaun Tan: Yes, I think the main thing is how fast film is. Scenes in a graphic novel can seem to pass slowly and endure a lot of attention, especially wide landscapes and so on. In film, the same images can come across as surprisingly long, and even boring when put on screen (like so many student films!) so our attention works in a different way here. The arrangement of cuts – being the equivalent to comic panel divisions – is also much tighter, with seemingly less room for variation, the flow is too easily jarred by unexpected shifts, and there’s no time for an audience to contemplate discrepancies. In that sense, film is far more conventional in its visual language than illustrated books, and actually a lot more restrictive. I didn’t realize this until tackling it from a production end, and seeing how many things don’t work on screen. It was a real learning curve, but my relative inexperience was useful: we ended up trying things that were a bit unusual – such as some framing devices – and occasionally found that they worked. We also tried to slow things down, whereas 3D animation often favors a brisk, snappy pace.

TM: Going back at least to Yellow Submarine, and probably much further, there has been a long tradition of heavily-detailed works of animation which are constructed in such a way that they can never be fully absorbed on a single viewing.  I think your film, The Lost Thing, is part of that tradition.  A book, by its very nature, matches a reader’s own particular pace. I can imagine a child being astonished by the film, but then, very carefully, pouring over the details in every corner of the page of your book version.  Do you see the book and film serving as counterpoints in this particular way?

ST: You know, I hadn’t really thought about that, but now that you mention it, yes, that’s probably what kids will be doing. Either that, or watching the film multiple times, which was part of my intention. That’s just as true of the book, and all picture books in general: the good ones are meant to be read more than once in order to be properly understood, and the artist takes advantage of the brevity here to insert layers of ideas, one on top of another, rather than set out along a linear string. Our film would possibly not be so effective were it feature-length – too inconvenient to review. But at fifteen minutes, you can at least watch it a couple of times in a half-hour window, and there are enough odd bits in there that encourage a viewer to do this, like revisiting a strange dream. With the Australian DVD release, I also created a special “field guide” to lost things, which includes detailed drawings of a number of creatures glimpsed in the film. I realized that, like myself, a lot of viewers would enjoy spending more time with my original concept drawings.

TM: The aesthetics of the sterile world of The Lost Thing, with its turn-of-the-century newsprint and ubiquitous piping, seems to point to the excesses of the Industrial Age. Yet there is also a disturbing pair of statues in the background of one of your panels which depict a man with the head of a camera talking to a man with the head of a television set.  I guess the obvious answer to this observation is that you are creating a timeless universe.  But is there any particularly intense love/hate relationship you have with the Industrial Age, the Information Age or any other age that you are wrestling with.

ST: Yes, it’s a kind of love-hate relationship with post-industrial society, but more of a general curiosity too. I think that the age we are all currently living in is absolutely remarkable, it’s so different from our ancestral origins, it’s all happened so rapidly that I feel our older human spirits have not had much time to catch up – and much contemporary art is really a rumination on this problem when you think about it.

The world of The Lost Thing is a very exaggerated one, a frankly negative, cartoon-like distortion, all about the way that artificial living can stifle our imagination, or generate a kind of amnesia. The concrete, signage, numbering and plumbing is really an extension of a deeper crisis, like a visual representation of an apathy and compassion fatigue that threatens all of us. The interesting thing about that totalitarian statue you mention is that the camera and TV are connected, so it’s a feedback loop without any external stimulation (nature is also not present at all, no trees, or even blue skies). It’s quite an important detail for me, and I’m glad you noticed it: it’s about the way people look inwards, and become a slave to their own architecture, something that originally was intended to liberate their lives or make things easier. We see the same thing happening in the world of work: people being subjugated by the very thing that was meant to benefit them and create happiness.

TM: On both these notes, I noticed quite a few points in the margins of your film and the three stories that make up Lost and Found that either quoted or riffed on Heinz Edelmann’s designs for Yellow Submarine.  I know that film was particularly influential upon your work, as it has been for a number of illustrators and animators.  Could you describe your own sense of Yellow Submarine?  There is a way in which your drawings, particularly in The Rabbits, felt brutalistic to a degree that Edelmann and his team would not even attempt to reach.

ST: Yes, that’s interesting. I would also include influences such as Ralph Steadman (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Gerald Scarfe, Milton Glaser, Jim Henson and countless other artists, illustrators, cartoonists and film-makers – they all go into the subconscious pot, so Yellow Submarine was not as directly referenced as you might think (and itself owes a lot to Bosch, the Spanish Surrealists, Lewis Carroll and central European puppetry and illustration). What I like about the world of Edelmann and Peter Max are the dreamlike qualities, where the nature of characters remain inexplicable, and sit somewhere between an adult and childhood imagination: a mixture of cuteness, menace and philosophical puzzles.

TM:Only The Rabbits, which was written by John Marsden, seems to be particularly Australian in its content. (Although Marsden claims in his author’s note that the germ of his allegorical tale comes from an American Indian source.)  Your art has an all-swallowing universal quality.  But are there any particularly Australian elements in your other two books that I am overlooking?

ST: There are several, there’s a general feeling about the animals that is specifically Australian, even though they are invented species. Things like broad marsupial stripes, the water birds and spindly lizards, tiny flowers. The landscapes are based on Australian examples, the strange desert rocks, based on a formation called The Olgas in our continent’s ancient center. Most Australian readers identify the vivid palette as particularly familiar, where an overseas reader might think of it as seeming fanciful, it’s not as removed from reality as you might think. Our land is a place of extremes: vibrant and muted, fragile and incredibly harsh, prone to devastation and renewal, as we’ve seen with recent floods. When I look at my own paintings, those are the things I recognize, a tough vulnerability, a strangeness of scale. It goes hand in hand with our history of ecological disaster, an ongoing plague of rabbits being one of these, and the fact we have perhaps the highest rate of extinction in the world. Our colonial history is also particularly intense and violent, and largely unspoken due to a lingering racism and denial.

TM: You use empty desert-like landscapes to depict loneliness in The Red Tree. But you use less obvious visual stimulations as well.  A giant deathly fish hovers over the heroine as she walks the streets.  At one point she stands below a structure that seems to have been pulled off the set of Metropolis, as the world is described as a “deaf machine.”  How many visual metaphors for the varying qualities of loneliness did you work through before you settled on these?

ST: Many, all of which are played around with in my sketchbooks. I wanted to have a good variety there, ranging from natural to urban elements, big things and small things, to really avoid any patterns forming. Part of the idea behind that book is that it is very dreamlike, and resists a logical interpretation, so the reader can only make an emotional assessment. I am sometimes frustrated when readers keep looking for “meaning,” as if every story has a fixed set of answers, so I wanted to create a book that obviously has none – only whatever you can bring to it using your own imagination.

TM: The lost thing of your film felt far more human than the humans.  I didn’t have the same immediate sensation when reading the book version.  Were you conscious of this change between the film and the book?

ST: That’s a very interesting observation and well put. No, I have to say I was not conscious of that, but it makes good sense that it turned out that way! In some respects, the film is a refinement of the separated universes you see in the book, the “human world” and “utopia” (the name we gave to the land of lost things). The irony here is that the human world is dehumanized, and the world of utopia is far more attractive for us. In digital animation, it’s often difficult to make humans move naturally, and so we used that to our advantage: my brief was always “make the people wooden.” In contrast, the lost thing was meant to seem very lively, and awake to its environment, just as the viewer or reader is. Although it has no face, can’t speak and is incredibly strange, we identify with the creature more than our human counterparts in this bleak world.

TM: There is a deep melancholy in The Lost Thing’s conclusion that feels even stronger in the book than in your film. It sounds like a meditation on the pain of growing older.  I wonder if that pain is particularly acute in childhood, during which so much changes so quickly and so much is quickly lost.

ST: That’s a good point: yes, I think that’s true. For adults, personal childhood objects tend to evoke a mixture of joy and sadness, which is a combined feeling that I really like, it feels very “full” and well-rounded. I don’t think you can really have one without a bit of the other, they define each other like complementary colors.

TM: How much are your books about adults? How much are they about children? Is there a difference?

ST: They are about both, given that every adult was once a child, and every child is heading, unavoidably, towards adulthood. I think too much is often made about the differences between age groups. For me the ideal state is to take the best of both worlds, something that every artist tries to do I think: the open-mindedness and innocent eye of a child, combined with the wisdom and experience of an adult. I think art and literature are such a great means of examining that intersection, and getting us to pay attention to all “lost things,” whatever that might mean.

llustrations from Lost & Found: Three by Shaun Tan copyright 2011 by Shaun Tan. Used with permission from Scholastic Inc. / Arthur A. Levine Books.

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