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The Lost Thing - Shaun Tan

The Lost Thing

By: Shaun Tan

Paperback | 20 May 2010 | Edition Number 1

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When a boy finds a lost 'thing' on the beach and tries to find its home, no one but him really seems to notice. A quirky tale about finding your place in the world.

A boy discovers a bizarre-looking creature while out collecting bottle-tops at a beach. Having guessed that it is lost, he tries to find out who owns it or where it belongs, but the problem is met with indifference by everyone else, who barely notice its presence. Each is unhelpful in their own way; strangers, friends, parents are all unwilling to entertain this uninvited interruption to day-to-day life. In spite of his better judgement, the boy feels sorry for this hapless creature, and attempts to find out where it belongs.

The Lost Thing received an Honourable Mention at the Bologna International Book Fair, Italy, was named an Honour Book at the CBCA Awards, won an Aurealis Award and a Spectrum Award for illustration in the United States. Original illustrations from the book were exhibited at the Itabashi Art Museum in Tokyo.

 A London-based film production company, Passion Pictures, is currently adapting The Lost Thing as a short animated film, and the Canberra-based youth theatre company Jigsaw has staged a multi-media adaptation of the story at the National Gallery of Australia in October 2004.

Comments on The Lost Thing

What started out as an amusing nonsensical story soon developed into a fable about all sorts of social concerns, with a rather ambiguous ending. I became quite interested in the idea of a creature or person who really did not come from anywhere, or have an existing relationship to anything, and was ‘just plain lost’. I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of a character that would represent how I might personally respond to this, so the unnamed narrator is essentially me (although I used to collect sea shells at the beach, rather than bottle-tops).

I wrote the story over a couple of weeks on my kitchen table - the original draft was much longer and more detailed, and was set in an ordinary suburb much like the one I grew up in. Later that changed as I developed the idea that the it was a kind of ‘retro-future’ suburb where there were almost no living things left, aside from people, and that everything was very dull and suffocating, but nobody cared too much about this.

The text is written as a matter-of-fact anecdote, told by the boy and addressed to the reader, presented as a kind of “what I did over summer” story (hence the use of hand-written text on strips of note paper). Significantly, the creature in question is never physically described, and there is very little said about the environment in which the story unfolds; this is where the illustrations take over. Read by itself the text would sound as though it is about a lost dog in a quite familiar suburb or city, but the pictures reveal a freakish tentacled animal in a surreal a treeless world of green skies, excessive plumbing, concrete and machinery.

The relationship between words and pictures is one of understatement; much of the humour in the story develops from this as the images defy expectation, and all weird absurdities are greeted with a kind of casual disinterest from the narrator. Such a tone is consistent with the themes of the book, which deals with questions of apathy, particularly the suppression of imagination and playful distraction by pragmatism and bureaucracy, conditions that affect both a society and its individuals.

Visually, the book is quite dense, which reflects the environment it depicts, having a sense of congestion and compression. There are no empty spaces on the pages, with all images framed by a collage of text and diagrams cut from old physics and maths textbooks. These were used by my Dad when he was an engineering student, and largely inspired much of the book’s aesthetic; they add some sense of the dry and industrial world presented in the paintings, a sort of meaningless functionality - pointless and amusing also. There is an accidental ‘poetry’ that often occurs using collage, where a chapter heading in an engineering manual might pass as an unintentional comment on life. The bottle-top collection, made from many beer bottle-tops (supplied by my house-mate), seems to perfectly sum up the universe in an abstract way - just right for an endpaper design.

I also liked the idea that, in keeping with the first-person narrative, this book is somehow a product of that world. Stamps and signs marking the cover and title pages, eg. “The Federal Department of  Information”, are consistent with the society the narrator comes from, along with other incidental details throughout the book which collectively build a sense of  the place in the absence of any overt description by our story-teller.

The Lost Thing itself I always knew would be red and big, so very noticeable, which makes us wonder why nobody really notices it (this is the key question of the story, for which there is no single answer). Its design was based on a pebble crab, a small round crustacean with claws that hinge vertically, and I combined this with the look of an old-fashioned pot-bellied stove, with a big lid on top instead of a mouth. I did not want the creature to have any anthropomorphic features, especially no face, so it’s eyes are reduced to small dots which emerge from a hole. The main thing was that it looked strange and unrecognisable - which is not always easy.

The creature exists in contrast to the world it inhabits, being whimsical, purposeless, out-of-scale and apparently meaningless - all things that the bureaucracy cannot comprehend, and so it is not worthy of any attention. Being a curiosity is only effective if the populace is curious, and they aren’t, being always “too busy” doing more important things.

There is perhaps some suggestion that the creature is an accidental by-product of the industrial landscape, a sort of unconscious mutation, appearing on the beach as if ‘washed up’. Towards the end of the book we notice that while the lost thing may be unique, it is not alone - evidently weird creatures regularly appear in the city, but their presence can be measured only by the extent to which they are noticed (ie. generally not at all). What these things are exactly should be a broad and open question for the reader, given that they symbolise some fairly open-ended notion of  ‘things that don’t belong’.

About The Author

Shaun Tan grew up in Perth. In school he became known as the 'good drawer' which partly compensated for always being the shortest kid in every class. Shaun began drawing and painting images for science fiction and horror stories in small-press magazines as a teenager, and has since become best known for illustrated books that deal with social, political and historical subjects through surreal, dream-like imagery.
Industry Reviews
A warm, funny read for kids, and an unexpectedly moving one for adults. -- Cambridge First

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