Jim's Reviews > Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China

Shenzhen by Guy Delisle
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's review
Oct 29, 2007

it was amazing
bookshelves: graphic-novels, read-and-kept, reviewed
Read in October, 2007

I've not read Guy Delisle's previous travelogue, Pyongyang, but finishing Shenzhen makes me want to go to a 24-hour bookseller and buy it now. That said, Shenzhen is not a sequel by any means -- it stands alone, and in fact, standing alone is the entire thrust of this great graphic novel.

At the start of the graphic novel, Delisle is ordered to Shenzhen, a city just north of Hong Kong but separated by that city by a massive fence and visa-stamping bureaucracy. He's the Canadian manager of a Shenzhen animation studio, perpetually directing overworked Chinese artists not to cross-eye the main character and to depict a person rising from a chair correctly. Three short months in China seems like an eternity of routine and repetition, why I said earlier the piece is about standing alone. Delisle's stay in China is the solitude of a stranger in a strange land, making do with what little resources are available in a rather stifling metropolis, and socializing as best he can with co-workers who would rather stay home and watch Michael Jordan DVD highlights.

Delisle's tightrope is to describe China's culture without exoticizing it, and he does so superbly. Certainly most of the graphic novel deals with cultural differences, but it's wonderful how often Delisle (the character) dives right into Chinese life without a qualm. In one section, he seems eager to try eating dog -- he might lose some readers there, but stick with it -- and elsewhere he makes the best of hotel staff who have no idea of privacy. The running joke of the hotel doorman practicing his English on Delisle nearly loses juice, but Delisle smartly has the doorman disappear just when we're tired of him. It's a deft little surprise. When Delisle spends an evening in a desolate Gold's Gym during a power outage, with nothing but candles and the juice bar man singing, the moment is about priceless. This is a graphic novel constructed of oblique conversation, awkward silences, hand signals, and shadows.

On the face of it, the artwork is not ornate, but the panel work is superb. Delisle knows exactly what to draw where to give the reader a full sense of situation and character. His occasional full-page renderings of half-constructed high-rises in Shenzhen ("the fastest growing city in the world") ease the pace to a casual crawl, giving the reader the impression of floating through a metropolis forever on the grow. There's a background buzz of steroidal capitalism in this book.

Delisle evades certain psychology and back story which could make this work a classic. For example, there's a one-panel suggestion of a woman in a restaurant giving him the eyeball, but no follow-up. In another section, a co-worker leaves glamour photos of herself for him to peruse, and again, no follow-up. It's not sex I'm talking about, but companionship, the central question in this novel of loneliness and wandering, and Delisle evades it through misdirection. Perhaps this has to do with fidelity or marriage -- that's not answered either -- but the hole is rather gaping, and for a book of this sensitivity, it's surprising it's not dealt with forthrightly.

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