August 2008

Arts & Letters

‘Tales from Outer Suburbia’ by Shaun Tan

By Danielle Wood

Shaun Tan's publisher shelves Tales from Outer Suburbia as Young Adult Fiction, while a local bookshop of mine has wedged its copies of these illustrated stories in the children's section, right next to Dr Seuss. Imagine my surprise at this, when all the time I was reading the book, I - a perfectly grown-up 35-year-old - thought it was written for me.

Just who Tan's work is supposed to be for, and which pigeonhole it refuses to sit tidily within, are questions that have come up often enough in the Western Australian writer-illustrator's stellar career to warrant him publishing, on his website, a lengthy manifesto in which he argues that it is up to a work of art to find its own audience.

Tales from Outer Suburbia, lavishly stocked with visual and verbal delights, is a book to which any reader might return, at a later age or stage, to find the resonance of its contents slightly altered.

There might be times when it is the playfulness and whimsy of Tan's Suburbia that most appeals. Then, you might particularly enjoy ‘Eric', the tale of an enigmatic foreign-exchange student who confounds his hosts with his interest in the minutiae of life; or ‘No Other Country', about the exotic and expansive hopes that can be contained within even the most modest of suburban homes.

There might be other times when it is Tan's precision in balancing the pervasive forces of cruelty and tenderness that strikes a chord. At which time you might like to read, in ‘Broken Toys', about the unexpected mending of a heart, or, in ‘Wake', about the consequences of beating your dog.

At any old time, you might just like to applaud the perspicacity of ‘Alert But Not Alarmed', in which good citizens must adapt to a new law mandating that each household have its own intercontinental ballistic missile.

Eke out these short, pitch-perfect stories over a number of sittings, if you can, or wolf them all down in one greedy session: either way, it will be hard not to be seduced by Tan's witty reconfiguration of Suburbia as a place as odd, unexpected and surreal as the hearts and minds of its inhabitants.

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