Tales from the Inner City. By Shaun Tan. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $24.99.
Not even the title of Shaun Tan’s Tales from the Inner City is straightforward. The surface-level meaning, relating to the inner and often economically depressed portion of a metropolis, is clear enough; and yes, most of Tan’s two dozen tales are set in such an area, or at least make reference to one. But what Tan is really writing about is a city as he imagines it and asks readers to imagine it, a city that is “inner” in the sense that it exists only in the imagination from which Tan builds it, and comes to life – in a series of interactions between humans and animals – only when readers share, for a few moments, Tan’s inner-city experience.
The target readership for this book is very difficult to pin down. Nominally aimed at young readers, Tales from the Inner City is packed with imagery and forms of expression that will be meaningless except to adults who have experienced their fair share of life’s ups and downs. The untitled chapters, each introduced by a silhouette of a creature that is central to it (with the silhouettes also constituting a table of contents at the start of the book), instantly immerse readers in a physically impossible world whose emotional underpinnings have the ring of truth – but only to those who have experienced them. Most chapters are quite short, making their points quickly and leaving readers to think about them – and about Tan’s exceptional illustrations – later. One three-pager that begins, “One afternoon the members of the board all turned into frogs,” requires instant understanding of what this sort of “board” is and how the corporate pecking order is upended when an unnamed secretary walks into the room and discovers the amphibians. The illustration of a boardroom table with elegant leather chairs around it, floor-to-ceiling windows through which smokestacks belching fumes are clearly visible, with a dozen green frogs next to the water glasses on the tabletop, is an encapsulation of the story that combines a touch of whimsy with a hint of the seriousness of economic decision-making. This makes sense only for an adult audience.
An analogous theme pervades the three-page story that begins, “Where money gathers, so do pigeons,” which focuses on a skyscraper impossibly floating above a city’s financial district, exciting awe and curiosity among humans while pigeons simply see the entirely empty building as a place to roost. The concluding line, “No history of economics will ever record what pigeons already know – that they alone are the world’s greatest investment bankers,” is a wonderfully apt capstone to the tale, but one likely to be wholly unintelligible to younger readers.
Some stories, however, straddle the worlds of adults and children. The four-page one that starts, “You will never escape the tiger,” draws on the notion of wearing a back-of-head mask to confuse the potential predator into not knowing which way you are facing. It deals with the “great weakness of humankind” that consists of being “very self-conscious, easily embarrassed,” and therefore unlikely to wear a back-of-head mask even in self-defense – but it also deals with those who defy the norms by accepting, even embracing, such mask-wearing. That is a resonant theme for multiple ages – and here Tan’s illustration is simply spectacular, showing a stalking, wise-eyed tiger in full color and with perfect proportions on the left of a two-page spread, while the right side (in black-and-white, like most of the illustrated pages) shows the silhouette of a woman leaping high, high above the ground, her limbs outstretched, her pose one of abandon and joy rather than fear.
A few stories take a thoroughly childlike perspective and squeeze it surrealistically. One, a three-pager, starts, “You are two years old,” and is about horses that only a child can see “running along express lanes, rooftops, and overpasses, even along the jib of cranes and electrical wires strung high in the air,” horses that stand for all that existed long before the city did and in its early days, horses that lead the two-year-old to a lifelong love of the animals for reasons she will never quite fathom. Another tale, at 11 pages the book’s longest in terms of text, is about a ruined urban landscape in which urchins must fish in the sky, all water being nonexistent or hopelessly polluted – and what happens when one of them actually catches a “moonfish.”
Then there are stories where the words are almost incidental to the art. One lasting only a single paragraph is about gigantic snails that suddenly appear in an urban landscape. The two-page picture of a pair of the snails, seen top an overpass beneath which a faceless man is strumming a guitar, is bizarre and haunting. The longest story of all, 38 pages, contains only a few words written in free verse, starting “Once we were strangers,” and is about the long, long relationship between humans and dogs, and the many changes it has undergone over the ages while remaining foundationally the same. Thirteen beautiful two-page illustrations are the core of the tale, showing humans progressing (if it is progress) from hunter-gatherer times to the modern world, while dogs are seen in many shapes, sizes and colors but remain fundamentally unchanged.
It is unfortunate that textual errors interfere with the flow of several of the stories here. In a book as thoughtful and carefully arranged as Tales from the Inner City, editing mistakes loom larger than they would in a more-ordinary work. Among the verbal slips are “of the all the problems” (page 140), “it cast a very a long shadow” (page 141), “had build” (page 151), and “is a hard to erase from the mind” (page 197). There are also some vocabulary words here that are common enough in Australia, where Tan lives, but will make reading a bit difficult or off-putting elsewhere: “fossicking,” for example. Yet these flaws in Tales from the Inner City are minor ones beside its many beauties and accomplishments, not the least of which is the temporary creation, in the mind of the reader, of a multitude of impossibilities that exist strictly in inner space but whose outward resonance permeates the real world with dreams.
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