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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Shenzhen -- Canadian-born Guy Delisle is a natural storyteller whose gift for observation of the significance of even the smallest moments makes his travelogues a joy to read. Like his previous Drawn and Quarterly graphic novel Pyongyang, Delisle is on assignment in the animation industry over the course of Shenzhen, working closely with people whose language he cannot understand, but game to try new things in the culture he finds himself immersed in. "I feel like Tintin," he exhuberantly informs us at one point, and one comes to appreciate just how much reward there is in being a widely-read comics reader.

After deducing that a hotel maid has been listening to his CD player while cleaning his room, Delisle tells us "I wonder what she thought of the latest Portishead CD. In fact...I often wonder what they think in general."

Even in our own cultures, our own towns, our own homes, communication is often a shaky proposition -- give Delisle credit for being able to not only survive, but thrive, in his own way, in a place where ordering fish for dinner can result in being served an unappetizing plate of pork lips; where a young man trying to learn English is so eager and insistent to hold a conversation with Delisle that when Delisle switches to French (he is from the French-speaking part of Canada and currently lives in France), the man persists without noticing the change, finally giving up only when Delisle loses all patience and tells him to "fuck off." It's a surprising but human moment that demonstrates why Delisle's stories are so appealing -- there's never a sense that he is trying to mold his own depiction, only report on the events he observed and participated in, and whatever happens, happens.

Delisle is able to convey a great amount of detail (and suggest even more) through the choice of moments he shows us. Invited by a fellow animator to come over for coffee on Christmas, Delisle tells us about the Chinese animator's apartment: "There is no decor. The hospital-green walls are neon-lit. It's totally bare except for a huge leather sofa facing an equally huge television that he turns on the moment we walk in." The seeming bleakness of the setting is turned on its ear in the next panels, as Delisle tells us "A strange poster is tacked over the TV. It's a photograph of a French-style table setting, with little plates nested in bigger ones, a porcelain tureen, silver cutlery, etc. All things you never see here...it must seem so exotic to him." Then, crucially, Delisle pauses to give us a full-panel reproduction of his impression of the poster. The change in art-style, for just a moment, gives us profound insight into the man's appreciation of the poster, his reasons for hanging it so prominently in his living space, and Delisle's understanding of all this, presented so efficiently and brilliantly in just a handful of panels.

It's a stunning moment in a narrative packed with winning sequences; I could go on -- the missing doorman, the great relief of "spaghetti and meatballs!" But the joy in Shenzhen is your own delight, discovery and interaction with Delisle's story. You should experience it for yourself.

There's a rewarding underlying sense of structure to Shenzhen, a structure that allows the reader to feel he has experienced something of the journey with the author. Small moments along the way pay off later on, perhaps the least of which has the greatest impact in the book's very last sequence, an echo back to Delisle's arrival in Shenzhen, and a confirmation of, if not the universality of human experience, at least the universality of hotel room design in China.

Download a PDF preview of Shenzhen, coming in September, 2006 from Drawn and Quarterly.



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