Sunday, August 02, 2009

Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan


I've raved about him before, and I'll rave about him again. Shaun Tan is one of the most innovative illustrator/storytellers in the galaxy. In a boldfaced step outside my Reading In Order vow, I picked up Tales from Outer Suburbia for a quick, involving read. I sorta felt a slump coming on, and I thought this title might bust it. So far, so good! I read this collection of illustrated short stories in about an hour, and it was just what I needed.

I loved The Arrival and realized right away that Shaun Tan has an astounding ability to tell a story with images, and I found this collection of short stories enhanced by his spare words. Each tale was unique, and I was intrigued to find some of them quite political, and most of them terribly touching despite their brevity.

In "Grandpa's Story," an unnamed grandpa tells his grandkids about his marriage to their grandmother. He claims that marriages are far too easy these days, and that when he decided to wed, he and his bride went on a wild goose chase to earn their rings. They traveled through teeming cities filled with "no vacancy" signs, ran from man-eating televisions, and ended up in tears, barking horrible words at each other. Through the whole ordeal, they grew closer, and at the moment when they overcome their resistance to teamwork and truly join their efforts, that's when they find their rings and are able to return to Outer Suburbia for their wedding ceremony. Note: the illustration below is one from "Grandpa's Story."

Outer Suburbia is an odd place all around, and it's as much a character in the book as the more traditional people and animals in each tale.

In another story, "Alert but Not Alarmed," the residents of Outer Suburbia begin to have missiles delivered to their homes by the government. At first they take their charges very seriously. A missile sticks up out of every single backyard in the neighborhood. Eventually, though, the residents begin to realize that they may never use their missiles, and they begin to remove the innards and convert them into more beautiful, helpful items: potting sheds, doghouses, and club houses for the neighborhood children. Eventually they abandon the dull grey paint the government provides, and they paint their missiles bright, cheery colors.

The story is only two pages long, but it's really beautiful, and it speaks to our concerns about the state of the world during war, and our tendency to become desensitized to dangers that can seem so imminent in the beginning.

Everything I say about Shaun Tan seems to sound overdone or trite, but it's all true! If you haven't tried his work, I wholeheartedly recommend it. It's really quite amazing what he can accomplish through images, and Tales from Outer Suburbia is a testament to his words as well.

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