Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Gallery of Ancient Modern

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 47
Shaun Tan, Tales From Outer Suburbia

"Eric" (click to enlarge)

Just as Tolkien famously instructed readers that they were cheating themselves by ignoring fairy stories, I believe adults miss grand opportunities by shunning picture books. Consigning them to the “children’s lit” ghetto denies us the opportunity to savor the tension existing between a well-made picture and a perfectly crafted story. This illustrated collection, a highly regarded Australian import nominally intended for youth, is a masterly surreal dreamscape that will leave readers of all ages astounded and enrapt.

Describing the stories in this collection is a fool's errand, because the magic isn't in the stories. It's in the tension between the dry, understated prose and the sweepingly epic pictures. Tan creates a thrilling, often chilling melange of influences, the sort of liminal world where fantasy has become banal that M. Night Shyamalan tries, and mostly fails, to capture. Though any seasoned reader would recognize Tan’s stories as traditional fantasy, his easygoing, unperturbed voice carries a hint of something else, wonder as almost ordinary.

"The Water Buffalo" (click to enlarge)
And his pictures are marvels of low-key spectacle. His first story, “The Water Buffalo,” about a massive animal that knows the answer to every question, seems innocent and naive at first. When he mentions that the all-knowing water buffalo just left one day, it’s easy to mistake this for mere loss of innocence. But when placed beside the image of a monolithic beast rearing up like an Easter Island Maoi, dispensing truth with silent dispassion, we realize: the Water Buffalo is God. And God’s certainty is now lost to us.

These mixed-media illustrations hint at the influence of R. Crumb, Jim Woodring, and Chris Van Allsburg.  I suspect the pictures preceded the stories, because the grand scope and stand-alone autonomy of the images is a stark contrast to the voice of the prose, deceptively timid and unsure of the world.  Readers get the sense that Shaun Tan suspects our own world is more spectacular than we realize and wants to remind us to look around with wonder in our hearts.

The pictures alone justify the price of the book. A young couple flees rampaging carnivorous televisions; a Raphael fresco of the Peaceable Kingdom conceals itself behind hanging laundry; a neighborhood is studded with towering tips of tactical nuclear weapons. My favorite features two brothers hunting the edge of the map. The illustration shows an almost nuclear landscape of chicken shacks, gas stations, discount stores, and malls. This is suburbia as a Hieronymous Bosch vision of Hell.

"Grandpa's Story" (click to enlarge)
Tan’s centerpiece, “Grandpa’s Story,” reflects the age Tan writes for. The text tells the uncomplicated story of a now-obsolete marriage ritual in which the betrothed venture into the wilderness together to cement their bond. But the eleven pages of illustrations which accompany Tan’s five pages of story bespeak something greater. The images of blighted, but somehow full, motels; of menacing hordes of wind-up penguins; of cars broken down beyond hope of a tow, imply a world where the past is a menacing foreign country.

This concept intrudes throughout Tan’s storytelling. The cover image, of a barnacled diving bell on a suburban street, reflects a tale where a diver visits an aging immigrant widow. The implication is that her past has returned, that her past has become distant from, but more powerful than, her present. “Undertow,” about a sea mammal appearing on a small city lawn, reflects modern guilt at our abuse of the world around us. The past, the distant, and the invisible are all present for Tan.

Parents should approach this book with caution. Children might find his retro images slightly disturbing, his stories oddly violent. (Some libraries list this book as “Grade 7 & Up,” as though sproutlings can’t handle it.) But parents willing to engage their students in meaningful questions and answers, and adults willing to permit Tan’s art to return them to the splendor of childhood, will find much herein to relight the spark of childhood wonder. Do not lift this book lightly; instead, embrace this book as a life-changing influence which will linger after the final page closes.

This is a book of insights for a multimedia age. Readers will find themselves paying rapt attention to illustrations, reveling in the agonizingly gorgeous tension between word and image.  Here is a book that rewards multiple readings, and may spur thoughtful discussion between parents and their kids. The stories approach at the borders of consciousness, while the art strikes with concussive force. Nearly anyone will emerge from this book thoroughly changed. A reward for readers of all ages and dispositions.

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