CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 22 . . . . June 27, 2008
The work of Shaun Tan is always difficult to review because Tan's work can be understood on so many different levels and can be viewed from so many different perspectives that it is not an easy task to write a succinct review. One is tempted merely to say, "Read the book." His books are of such high quality that it would be advice well heeded.
I am of the opinion that Tan's previous book, The Arrival, may well be the finest book ever published for children. Certainly, I cannot think of a book that I consider to be better. As such, it was with a mix of excitement and trepidation that I approached Tan's latest book, Tales from Outer Suburbia. I was aware that, no matter how good the book, it was not likely that it could reach the same elevated status of The Arrival. I am happy to report that, although The Arrival remains my favourite Tan book, Tales from Outer Suburbia is a worthy successor.
Almost 100 pages in length, Tales from Outer Suburbia is a collection of 15 short, inter-related but stand-alone stories. Each story is generally about six pages in length. As an indication of the creativity to follow, Tan's table of contents is presented as a group of postage stamps on an envelope. The envelope is addressed "To Paul, (who always enjoys a good expedition)" who resides in Perth, Western Australia—a creative way to present the book's dedication. From these opening pages through to the book's end, Tales from Outer Suburbia is delightful, thought-provoking, deeply engaging and highly creative.
Tan possesses an imagination that knows no bounds—certainly not the mere confines of what the majority might deem realistic or believable. Rather, Tan is prepared to give voice to a vast array of possibilities. What if a dugong beaches on someone's front lawn? What if a water buffalo inhabits a vacant suburban lot, mutely pointing out directions to passers-by? What if, instead of leaving presents, a flying reindeer takes presents or precious belongings? What if…? Indeed. In a world where such things are possible, perhaps nothing is remarkable, as in the case of the beached dugong, where the neighbours switch on their television sets, expecting to see a news report about the event. When no mention is made of the dugong, the neighbours conclude "that the whole event was possibly not as remarkable as they had originally thought." I rather suspect that, for Tan, rather than nothing being remarkable, it is far more likely that everything is remarkable.
Tan suggests that, if we look closely enough and think deeply enough, life in suburbia is not the ho-hum existence that many might think. This sentiment is most clearly illustrated in the story of the alien cultural exchange student, Eric, whose visit to the suburbs is both educational and stimulating. The alien wonders about the things that most of us give no consideration to—bottle caps, mint wrappers, buttons, poker chips, postage stamp adhesive and the like. Surprised by the things that Eric asks about, the host does not feel very helpful. "I'm not really sure;" the host has to confess, "That's just how it is." Just as the host's thinking is challenged by the unexpected questions of the alien guest, Tan seeks throughout his book to challenge the thinking of his readers. In a later story, about stick figures, Tan writes, "If you stop and stare at them for a long time, you can imagine that they too might be searching for answers, for some kind of meaning. It's as if they take all our questions and offer them straight back." Likewise, Tales from Outer Suburbia leaves us with a multitude of questions—far more questions than answers—but it is in the questions that much of the beauty of the book resides. Do not think that one can merely read this book from first page to last, identify a beginning, middle and end, the principal characters, the climax, etcetera. Rather, Tales from Outer Suburbia is essentially a hypertext. Readers will gain most information and satisfaction from moving backwards and forwards, pausing here and pausing there, seeking and searching, asking and answering questions. One might even question the book's setting, pushing the limits of suburbia. To me, the title, Tales from Outer Suburbia, is suggestive of outer space—perhaps (and only perhaps)—providing some explanation of the other-worldly elements constantly reappearing between the covers of the book.
On one level, Tales from Outer Suburbia seems to be somewhat of an eclectic mix. Some of the stories are longer than others. Some pages are wordless, while other pages contain nothing but word text. The illustrations range from double-page spreads to pages that contain much smaller and/or many images. There is a mix of black-and-white, sepia tinged, and colour illustrations. Where used, colours are generally muted. Interestingly, perhaps the most vibrantly coloured illustration is one from the story, "Alert, But Not Alarmed." The double-page spread features lavishly coloured intercontinental ballistic missiles. Government-issued, each household keeps a missile in the backyard, but the People have decided that backyard missiles can serve a variety of purposes—garden tool storage, cubby houses, dog kennels and, even, a pizza oven. "We all know that there's a good chance the missiles won't work properly when the government people finally come to get them," Tan writes, and then adds, "Deep down, most of us feel it's probably better this way. After all, if there are families in far away countries with their own backyard missiles, armed and pointed back at us, we would hope that they too have found a much better use for them." Such political utterances lie at, or only slightly below, the surface of many of the stories, adding yet another layer to the complexity of Tan's book. Another tale with overtly political underpinnings is "The Amnesia Machine." Presented as part of a newspaper page, the double-page spread includes references to such things as the war on terror, environmental exploitation and destruction, promises of tax cuts, campaigns of fear, and manipulation of "truth."
My favourite of all of the book's tales is the seven-page long, "Our Expedition." It is the story of two brothers setting out to settle a bet by proving or disproving that the world ends at the edge of the final map (Map 268) in a neighbourhood street directory. The first person voice used to present the story from the perspective of the younger brother captures the younger brother's voice perfectly (and I should know, being a younger brother, myself). "My brother insisted, with an irritating tone of authority enjoyed by many older siblings…" Tan writes. Without even being aware that I was doing so, I found myself nodding my head. "My brother was like this about most things. Annoying." Hmmm. But then, at the very end of the story: "One annoying thing I forgot to mention about my brother: he is almost always right." Magnificent! I suspect that, like me, Tan might have grown up with an older brother who was rarely wrong.
As with The Arrival, not for one minute do I pretend to understand all that is included between the covers of Tales from Outer Suburbia. For me, however, this adds greatly to the value of the book. I suspect that, for years, I will be turning to Tales from Outer Suburbia, creating new understandings and considering new possibilities. I know that I will also be sharing the book with many people, asking them to help me make sense of it all. This is another Shaun Tan book not to miss.
Gregory Bryan lives in a suburb of Winnipeg, MB. He teaches children's literature courses in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba.
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