January 17, 2013

(++++) BEYOND FORMULA AND WITHIN IT


The Bird King: An Artist’s Notebook. By Shaun Tan. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $19.99.

Infestation. By Timothy J. Bradley. Scholastic. $5.99.

      Shaun Tan is one of the cleverest and most original artists currently working in children’s books – and that is not the only area where he works: film and other media attract him, too. The Bird King is a series of disconnected, frequently haunting and always fascinating sketches by Tan, interlaced with his own commentary on how he works and where his ideas come from.  Tan is a fantasist above all – even the section devoted to drawings he made from life shows elements of the fantastic seeping in, as if there is something remarkable just around the corner and just beyond every ordinary person’s eye, with Tan able to see it clearly. Tan draws grotesques that are somehow not frightening, such as “Neighbourhood Watch,” a huge creature with vaguely dinosaurian body and long horns but a somewhat benevolent expression in its single gigantic eye; “The Water Woman,” who poles a boat through the air while a cloud sheds raindrops into a large vase aboard her craft; “The Thing in the Bathroom,” a vaguely ghostlike creature with huge head, tiny arms and visible internal organs; and many more. His “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” showing a boy (likely Tan himself) leading an array of fantastical beings (and presented in two versions, one of them on the cover), is insightful and delightful in equal measure.  And then there are drawings that are simply bizarre, such as “Proud Parents,” showing a mechanical whale-like thing with an electrical cord coming out of its toothed mouth…the cord plugged into a bell-shaped object with tiny wings and an egg visible through a sort of faceplate. Tan’s drawings are very difficult to describe but not difficult at all to react to: they are visual puzzles that seem to tell stories even when no story has yet been officially built around them – journeys out of Tan’s unconscious mind for everyone interested in fine art and thoughtful illustration to absorb and enjoy.

      There is enjoyment to be had in Infestation as well, but the pleasures of this (+++) book are strictly those of observing a formula neatly applied and worked through by author Timothy J. Bradley.  Here the strange creatures are decidedly frightening: large and aggressive ants the size of human beings, which are even more of a threat than the human characters, who are no prizes themselves. The setting is absolutely typical for this sort of book: an isolated, hard-to-reach place called the Reclamation School for Boys, complete with nasty instructors and brutal bullies. The book is a sort of cross between Holes and the still-scary 1954 movie Them, but without the panache of either.  The dialogue tends to be unintentionally funny: “Another problem? Another one? You mean besides being stuck in this jail for kids in the middle of the desert? Besides the giant earthquake? Besides being chased by huge, mutant, man-eating bugs?”  Well, yes, there are indeed other problems; without them, there would be nowhere for Infestation to go.  Where it goes is into traditional escape-from-terror mode: “Either the bugs catch up to us, or the engine overheats, and then the bugs catch us. Either way, we’re dead.”  The human characters are so venal and dull that some readers may find themselves rooting for the bugs – which, however, do not win, although the end of the book makes it clear (typically for this sort of thing) that they have not exactly lost, either. Infestation is supremely silly and not nearly as scary as it wants to be, except for those with entomophobia. But it is a quick read for those looking for modest chills that cannot possibly be taken seriously.

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