The Lost Thing (2000)
Writer/Artist: Shaun Tan
Anne Hathaway, playing Catwoman in The Dark Knight Returns, articulated one of the inevitabilities of the Internet era when she said: “There are no fresh starts in today’s world. Everything is stored, lined up, collated. Everything sticks.” Her anguish was not entirely unjustified: Google’s “right to be forgotten” proposal (wherein people can request the removal of incriminating search results from say, a decade ago), although adopted without prejudice by the European Union, is still a fiercely contested topic. On the one hand, the internet won’t let us forget some of our worst moments while on the other, it has distracted us enough to make us forget some of our finest impulses.
Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing is both a dystopian and a utopian work, in that respect. It demonstrates how technology lulls us into a state of cultural somnolence, while also slipping in a quiet rejoinder: that technology can also be used to break this pattern.
The book’s protagonist hints at the theme of forgetting right at the outset, when he says: “So you want to hear a story? I used to know a whole lot of pretty interesting ones.” After this, he begins to tell the story of how he found “the lost thing” when he was a young boy “working tirelessly on his bottle top collection”. The lost thing itself is a gigantic machine: a combination of an industrial boiler, an octopus and a crab. It’s lost because it doesn’t fit in with the world where the story is set in: a grey-hued city where everything is in perfect order, right down to orderly queues of people walking on the streets. Nothing is out of place and nobody lives without a purpose.
Tan’s visual style is one of a kind. His lighting, in particular, evokes a strong sense of nostalgia while also tapping into a classic science fiction vibe. In his masterly silent graphic novel The Arrival, he uses light and shadow to devastating effect.
To that end, there is a federal department of “Odds and Ends” which specialises in gathering together the last lost things around and consigning them to the dustbin of history. When the protagonist goes to this department, he realises it’s a desolate mechanical dungeon, a glorified scrap heap. The rest of the book is about the boy’s quest to locate a fabled utopia for lost things and lead his new friend there.
Tan’s visual style is one of a kind. His lighting, in particular, evokes a strong sense of nostalgia while also tapping into a classic science fiction vibe. In his masterly silent graphic novel The Arrival, he uses light and shadow to devastating effect. But for sheer storytelling nous, I prefer The Lost Thing.