Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China
by Guy deLisle (Drawn & Quarterly, 2006)

Guy deLisle is a Canadian artist who has worked for many animation studios, including the CineGroup of Montreal. His first graphic novel, Pyongyang, was a travelogue depicting life in North Korea from a Westerner's point of view. His second novel, Shenzhen, is essentially the same sort of series of "outsider's" observations about life in a foreign country.

Sent to the city of Shenzhen, China, to oversee an outsourced animation project, deLisle faces a rather long, three-month assignment in a very lonely place. It does not help that he knows virtually nothing about China, a difficulty that underscores his rather intense isolation. In a series of very amusing anecdotes, deLisle offers up his viewpoint of life inside a fenced-in city that is both old-fashioned yet rushing headlong into modernization, a charming but ultimately boring place where tedious bureaucracy and cultural habits that are rather bizarre (to him, anyway), make for rather interesting reading, even if it doesn't quite have the cohesion and narrative reach of Pyongyang.

It's classic stranger-in-a-strange-land fare, with plenty of sidesplittingly funny moments, such as a doorman in his hotel who keeps trying, without any success, to practice his English on the French-speaking Canadian; working out by candlelight in the local Gold's Gym on one of the many nights the power goes out, with only the singing juice-bar man for company; and co-workers who would rather watch Michael Jordan highlight videos than do anything with their lives. Daily life is conducted through a series of hand gestures, verbal shadowboxing and cultural misunderstandings that border on slapstick, when they aren't nearly tragic, such as the female coworker who attempted to seduce him by leaving Big Macs on his drawing board at work.

Yet for all his attentiveness, what's missing from deLisle's anomie is a real feel for what China was actually like. DeLisle's story is ultimately about his loneliness, as expressed through a series of loosely based anecdotes, rather than actual cultural observations. His perspective on what it's like to feel out of place is somewhat engaging, but he could have been writing about anyplace that wasn't home; there is, ultimately, nothing very distinctive about this travelogue, which, truthfully, has the feel of a biography.

I generally like deLisle's art, but I did not feel it served the story well this time around. Although his panel work is quite wonderful, really lending a sense of perspective to the situations in which he finds himself, the lack of detail made everything seem very sterile. There is nothing about the simple, back-and-white art that is very distinctive. His full-page panels, however, do help to impart a sense of a metropolis that is growing but still essentially lacking in humanity. All in all, though, Shenzhen is still a quite decent read, if a bit more self-centered than his other work.

review by
Mary Harvey

11 June 2011

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