January 22, 2009


Tales from Outer Suburbia. By Shaun Tan. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $19.99.

     How much weirdness will your child accept? To how much do you want to expose him or her? Consider the questions with care, because your answer will have a huge bearing on how you react to one of the most peculiar children’s books to come along in a very long time indeed: Shaun Tan’s Tales from Outer Suburbia.

     Tan is the artist whose wonderful, sepia-toned graphic novel, The Arrival, captured the immigrant experience through astonishingly imaginative surrealistic pictures, such as ones of a city where everything was strange, from the bizarrely shaped buildings to the enormous statue of a standing birdlike figure with angel wings, holding an egg in its arms (yes, arms), to items that seemed to be gigantic decorated dinner plates standing on edge. The Arrival succeeded so well in part because it was entirely wordless: as peculiar as the pictures were, they offered a visual impression of some sort of journey toward some sort of new life, and readers (or, really, viewers) could follow along and create their own (guided) narrative.

     Tales from Outer Suburbia clearly springs from the same sensibility, and its odd illustrations, many of them existing on the fringes of nightmare, have nearly the same impact as those in Tan’s earlier book. But this is largely a book of words, and it is the uneasy intermingling of Tan’s narratives with his pictures that makes the book very unsettling but not, somehow, as full of impact as his wordless graphic novel.

     For example, the story “Stick Figures” shows odd and oddly menacing figures of sticks with featureless heads – or sometimes only their shadows – with a text that reads, in part, “With careful aim a good strike will send the head – a faceless clod of earth – flying high into the air. …What are they? Why are they here? What do they want? Whack! Whack! Whack! The only response is the sound of dead branches falling from old trees on windless evenings, and random holes appearing in front lawns, dark sockets where clods of earth have been removed during the night.” This could easily be the stuff of nightmare, but Tan refuses to treat it as such, turning it into simply one of a number of unexplained and perhaps unexplainable occurrences in the apparently placid suburban streets.

     Then there is “Grandpa’s Story,” in which the old man tells how he and Grandma got married after going on a strange and vaguely sinister scavenger hunt that ended after they discovered their wedding rings “in the hollow muddy pan of the car’s boot.” This story features five pages of narrative and 11 of illustrations, including a visual sequence in which the couple’s car drives into a black-and-white desert in which an ocean liner sits atop a distant hill (a scene reminiscent of one in The Arrival); a gigantic monster that seems to be a mutant tree separates the people from their vehicle; the two are chased by a pack of unplugged TV sets showing toothlike test patterns; and more. Again, this is, or could be, distinctly nightmarish, but Tan refuses to say that it is, or was.

     Throughout Tales from Outer Suburbia, Tan juxtaposes odd stories with even odder illustrations: a tiny alien “exchange student” accepted as having “cultural differences” in one tale, a man wearing an old-fashioned diving suit walking the suburban streets in another, a mysterious ball of paper containing remnants of poems and floating above the houses until wind or rain destroys it, an endangered dugong appearing suddenly on a lawn four kilometers from the nearest beach, a nameless holiday that occurs in August or October and features an enormous reindeer that hooks onto its antlers “objects [that] are so loved that their loss will be felt like the snapping of a cord to the heart,” and more. Sometimes touching, sometimes scary, and above all bewildering, Tales from Outer Suburbia is certainly a remarkable experience. But it is so highly personalized by Tan’s very outré visions that it will be a distinctly uncomfortable book for many people – and not one that families will necessarily enjoy experiencing. Think carefully before buying.

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