By Shawn Tan
Arthur A. Levine Books
As an author and an illustrator, Shaun Tan has an uncanny ability to immediately draw you into his fictitious worlds. I first fell in love with his work when I saw The Red Tree (2003, Simply Red Books). After that I looked forward to the publication of all his new work. There are a few artists, in fact only three I can think of, whose art I would like to live inside. Shaun Tan is one of them (the other two are Philip C. Stead and Dave McKean). There’s something so utterly enchanting and captivating that I just want to step right inside their art and take up residence.
Tales from Outer Suburbia would be a fascinating, and sometimes unsettling, book to live in. It contains a series of short stories–some just a single page–all depicted in a true-life documentary style.
Other than taking place in suburban neighborhoods, there’s no indication that the stories are at all related. Some are told in first person’s narrative, some in the third and one story, “Distant Rain,” is told in bits and pieces from found scraps of paper, assembled against background illustrations. It questions what happens to all the poems people write, but that no one ever reads.
Tan uses a different illustration style for each story and they are all enticing. The art for “The Water Buffalo,” a one-page story accompanied by one illustration, is rich, with dark earthy colors and thick brushstrokes. The buffalo is sitting on his hind legs, hunched over in an overgrown field. There’s a small girl in front of him carrying a box. Looking at the image you can feel the heat of the setting sun, and smell the dust in the air. “The Nameless Holiday” is paired with woodcuts rendered in black and white. The shadow of a male deer is stretched across the well-groomed grass of a playground. There’s a sky of stars and clouds and the chill of a late-summer night in the air.
“Eric” is a story about a foreign exchange student whose host family is convinced cultural differences are to blame for the odd behaviors of their, perhaps other-worldly, visitor. He chooses to sleep in the pantry, asks questions about every day objects which the family cannot really answer, then makes a sudden departure with just a wave and a goodbye. An uncomfortable feeling hangs in the air until the family discovers an amazing parting gift in their pantry. Now, it’s the first thing they show any new visitor.
“Grandpa’s Story” recounts the tale of grandpa and grandma’s wedding day scavenger hunt, “always the most troublesome and feared part of any wedding.” Tradition dictated that on the morning of their wedding the young couple be photographed, and then sent off with a list of objects to find before the end of the day. The task is difficult, and there are many setbacks. Trouble strikes, and it seems they may not make it back in time for their vows, but then the smallest glimmer of magic turns everything around.
“Our Expedition” involves a bet made between two brothers over the reason that the street directory in their father’s car ends at Map 268. There are streets and avenues right up to the edge of the page. Certainly they couldn’t all be on the brink of nothing.
Each narrative gives you a brief glimpse into a whole other world. Whether they’re playful, magical, sad or unusual, they’re all absorbing. And each new style of art will make you wish for another book by Shaun Tan.