The need to feel a sense of belonging is a powerful and universal one. This sense is formed from connections made with others. The result can be a range of emotions, from an increase in the feeling of security and self esteem, to feelings of unhappiness and loneliness. When someone does not fit in, often because they are different, the negative emotions that they feel can be very harmful. The picture book The Lost Thing (2000), written and illustrated by Shaun Tan, explores the themes of belonging and alienation that occur in modern society.
The story begins with a man trying to recall stories from his youth. The only one he can remember is about when he was a young boy and he discovers a gigantic, red, machine-like animal that is lost and alone at the beach. The boy takes pity on the creature and decides to try to find out where it belongs. The book is written in a simple and entertaining style, and while it is mainly a story for children, it has a deeper message about the power of bureaucracy, apathy, alienation and suppression of imagination.
The Lost Thing is set in a retro-futuristic world where everything seems grey, dull and suffocating. The body language and facial features of the crowd reinforce these feelings. Given the uniform greyness of the landscape, it is all the more amazing that no one except the young boy notices the huge red creature. His friend Pete has no real solution to his problem of finding a home for the Lost Thing and his parents don’t even notice it until he points it out to them and even then they are not interested in being helpful or friendly.
Shaun Tan is highlighting how society will often reject those that don’t fit in and may isolate and turn a blind eye to things that don’t belong or seem weird or different preferring to carry on with their boring and monotonous lives. The lines “nobody was very helpful,” “Too busy doing other stuff, I guess,” demonstrates these ideas. The boy decides to take the creature to the Federal Department of Odds and Ends which offers a place for things that don’t fit. Here they are given help from an unlikely source and eventually find a place for the creature to live. I didn’t know what to think but the lost thing made an approving sort of noise”, “They all seemed happy enough”. To sum up I believe that the city in which the book is set in is a retro-futuristic world where everything seems grey, dull and suffocating and the body language of the crowd reinforces it. In The Lost Thing, the words and illustrations are interdependent on each other. The text is simple and the setting and characters are not described in any great detail. By contrast, the artwork is extremely detailed and shows much of the story’s deeper meanings.
There are no empty spaces on the pages and collages fill each page using old physics and engineering text books. This gives the sense of a dry and industrial world, filled with meaningless and pointless detail, where the inhabitants are bogged down with red tape and too busy with the daily grind of the workplace. However, on careful examination of the detailed artwork, humour can be found. For example, there is an ad for a “mobile visual technician” for whom “No client too irritating”. This contrast gives some light relief to an otherwise depressing view of the society in which the young boy lives.
The overall colour scheme that Shaun Tan uses is one of faded old yellowing paper, dull reds and varying shades of grey. This gives a sense of an overcrowded, compressed and congested world, and the muted and sepia colour tones add to the feeling boredom, dullness and self-absorption of the inhabitants of the city. Even the drawings of the city give an unsettling feeling. The detailed industrial pipe work is everywhere, the buildings and concrete slabs are old and decaying with rusted pipe sticking out at odd angles.
The city looks worn out and tired, a mirror of its inhabitants. The use of stamps and stickers, “The Federal Department of Censorship” for example, on the front and back covers and title page of the book give the feeling of the book being a product of the world which the boy comes from. From this I can conclude that the words and illustrations are interconnected. Shaun Tan makes some very interesting comments on the effect of belonging, and the fundamental urge of the characters in his book to achieve this.
The boy has connections with various people in the book and this gives him a sense of belonging, for example the illustration of him and Pete sitting on the roof top with the Lost Thing shows a relaxed friendship. Also his relationship with his parents, although detached, helps give him a sense of security and he clearly belongs there. Tan suggests that imaginations are suppressed in this world, only available to the young. Ultimately, the sense of belonging that the boy feels is at the expense of his curiosity and imagination. By comparison, the creature is completely at odds with the world around it.
It appears to have no language, purpose or function, and therefore could find no connections with the inhabitants of the world around it. It is ignored and rejected which results in a negative impact on it, as the boy says “it had a sad sort of lost look” and was “lost”. It is clear that the creature wishes to find somewhere to belong. It happily goes along with the boy to find such a place and when they discover it, the creature enters and therefore a sense of belonging is achieved. There seems to be no relationship between the inhabitants of this world, only a combined sense of security.
Interestingly, that while the world in which the creature enters looks much more exciting than the one that boy lives in, he makes no attempt to enter, his decision is to remain where he lives.. This demonstrates the difference in each of the main character’s sense of belonging within the world. I read this stunning picture book a number of times and each time found more details and messages contained within its pages. The messages of belonging and alienation which Tan wishes to portray are subtly and yet powerfully demonstrated through the use of his simple text and brilliant artwork.