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Shenzhen
posted October 5, 2006
 

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Creator: Guy Delisle
Publishing Information: Drawn and Quarterly, 152 pages, Hardcover, $14.95, September 2006
Ordering Numbers: 1894937791

Without looking, I'd say that Guy Delisle's Shenzhen was completed earlier than last year's Pyongyang*, but that's not the biggest factor in terms of how the works diverge. As a frequently misbehaving member of the international community rarely depicted in media, North Korea dominated Pyongyang's stage. It was difficult as a reader not to poke around for clues about the people surrounding Delisle, pressing past the story he told for insight into the civic manueverings and situations that presented themselves, even peripherally, looking for clues as to the country's aberrant behavior and the citizenry's potential participation in same. Shenzhen, on the other hand, proves to be a much more personal work. To extend our metaphor, in Shenzhen, China eschew's North Korea's star turn to play the supporting role with the interesting character arc, in this case embodied by a boomtown's move towards Western-style capitalism and free market-style isolation. The star of the show, then, is Delisle himself, and the alienation he feels in a civic setting constructed in familiar broad strokes and baffling details.

How effectively is that alienation portrayed? Well enough that a reader that's spent any time in an unfamiliar place should be able relate to Delisle's experience, but maybe not so well that the same reader would likely develop significant insights into exactly what's happening to the narrator and why. Delisle adheres to the external necessities of travelogue and builds an interface for the reader through accretion of detail. Delisle's personality doesn't clash with daily occurrences but kind of rolls along with them. His temperature rarely rises. When something unexpected pops up in the course of the narrative, like the joy that Delisle seems to feel in a moment in Hong Kong where he compares himself to Tintin, it leaves an impression for pages afterward. The positive side to that lack of breakthrough moments is that there are very few stabs at meaning of the kind that provided an unconvincing throughline to Pyongyang. In the end, I think I may prefer this work. Its plodding sense of travel as an ordeal, Delisle's disappointment in the entire experience, feel like truthful reactions to a time and place that needn't impress itself on anyone.

* I wimped out and looked three sentences later; if Amazon.fr is a legitimate guide Shenzhen is the younger work, but only by two years.