The World is a Deaf Machine: The Loser’s Manifesto

The Red Tree – a children’s storybook – is one of those rare works of art so powerful, it completely transcends its genre. However, I would never allow my kids to look at it.

I first saw The Red Tree at an ex-girlfriend’s house. At that time, we were spending a bit of time in on-again / off-again limbo, as she and I were often wont to do. While we were off, she began seeing a man who lived in a building close-by.

I can’t remember all the details exactly, but I think he owned his apartment, which was in one of those fabulous gothic-cum-Sunset Boulevard-style apartment blocks that overlook Alexandra Avenue, down by the Yarra River.

In addition, he owned a catering company and would spin her around town in his white BMW convertible. She was an amazing-looking girl with an enormous head of beautiful red hair, a darkish kind of auburn, that looked like burnished copper in the sun. She told me that when she went somewhere in the convertible, she would emerge from the car with her hair sticking out like Sideshow Bob’s.

Anyway. He used to give her cards and pictures featuring some pretty macabre art. Chief among them was a postcard of a painting held at the National Gallery of Victoria which depicts a sheep in a snowstorm crying over her dead lamb, surrounded by crows that were poised to descend and peck out its eyes.

He also gave her this children’s book, The Red Tree. I remember sitting on the edge of her bed while I read through it. The obvious thing that springs to mind now is surrealism, but the thing about Shaun Tan’s style that is so remarkable is the way he draws symbols and images from everyday life and then renders and combines them in such a way as to make them monolithic and sinister, the way a distressed child would no doubt paint them emotionally.

It was so powerful I didn’t actually think anything at the time; it was more that I just sat and drank it in. The child’s love for its red tree with its scintillating leaves was obviously intended as a metaphor for his affection towards her. I felt awful and wanted to leave her apartment immediately afterwards; anyone who loved her like that deserved her absolutely.

So impressed was I that I bought the book and re-read it, successive times more intellectually. The symbols and their impact was dazzling, but the illusion of looking into a child’s world became a little grainier, which allowed me to see the artist’s adult organs of perception and communication at work. On consideration, I came to believe the book is the story of a child looking at the world through a lens severely warped by a distinctly adult species of depression.

It’s hard to discuss it in detail if you haven’t seen it, but there is one particular scene where the child protagonist is in what is most likely a railway station, dwarfed by the massive architecture. The whole draconian space is presided over by a number of huge, leering totem poles with crossbeams made out of vintage fighter plane wings.

The phrase that guides the image is something like, “When the world is a deaf machine…” I certainly understand how depression can take hold of a person. However, I believe that children should be encouraged to climb up and tear those totem poles down.

This youtube clip is a basic kind of animation of the story, using the images. It’ll give you the idea. It also illustrates how the child’s depression is cyclical and even the red tree is a function of it.  

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