November 2013

Arts & Letters

Shaun Tan’s ‘Rules of Summer’

By Catherine Ford
Hachette; $24.99

Shaun Tan’s books, as he has declared on his website, “are not created with children in mind”. Why, then, are they published under a children’s imprint and marketed to the young? Has the Melbourne-based writer and illustrator been shackled to the wrong audience?

Tan’s first co-authored picture book, The Viewer (1997), is a terrifying sequence of mandala-like images of humanity’s darkest hours, which, in the artist’s words, is “intentionally disjointed … without any moral message … leaving the reader to puzzle over its meaning”. The roughly dozen books that follow are mostly heavy narratives of little cheer. Subjects include Australia’s brutal postcolonial history, the memorialising of veterans’ shattered lives after Ypres and Vietnam, and the travails of a young misfit, attempting an act of kindness, in the drear dystopia of The Lost Thing (2000).

Edward Hopper, Jeffrey Smart and John Brack influenced The Lost Thing, especially Brack, whose “wooden, stiff figures in a flat, almost oxygen-less world” were, Tan says, his touchstones. The Red Tree (2001), dedicated to the artist’s wife, fairly batters a reader with hopelessness before granting them a reprieve: it is a child’s picture book about a very adult crisis.

Tan’s new work, Rules of Summer, cracks that mould, but doesn’t quite break it. It’s a marginally sunnier excursion into the doomsday ideations of two young brothers, and its energised artwork, at least, starts out in a cheerful palette.

Tan painted its 23 sumptuous images in oil, on good-sized canvases, using pallet knives; it was a new process that, tellingly, allowed him “freedom of gesture”, and got his “whole arm” moving. After the almost digital perfectionism of Tan’s earlier book art, Rules of Summer appears handcrafted; the better, he says, to enhance the dream-like, playful nature of the story.

The text – 18 imperatives, most starting with the word “Never” – is, however, alarmist, tauntingly obscure. “Never leave a red sock on the clothesline. Never eat the last olive at a party. Never be late for a parade. Never ruin a perfect plan.” It’s not clear who is issuing such life instruction to the boys – if it’s a parent, they need to be counselled – but what’s plain is the anxiety it triggers. When the narrative shifts into deeper despondencies, the commands disappear altogether, and three wordless, ashen images evoke a fearsome state of belittlement. The gravest place for a child, Tan seems to suggest, is the torment that’s mute. 

Bearing witness to innocence, and the punitive cosmos that weighs down on it, is Tan’s preferred psychic territory. But what parents these days – even those suckled on Brothers Grimm – would burden their young with such frights come bedtime?

Catherine Ford

Catherine Ford is a freelance journalist. Her books include NYC and Dirt.

November 2013

From the front page

Pub Test: Bad News for Turnbull

Media moguls did not knife the PM, his party did

Paul Feig’s sophisticated ‘A Simple Favour’

This camp study of sociopathy is far from simple

Image of Ancestral Spirit Beings Collecting Honey, 1985-87

‘John Mawurndjul: I Am the Old and the New’ at the MCA, Sydney

The celebrated bark painter’s ethos guides this retrospective exhibition

In The Big House

The quintessential American cultural experience is still college football

In This Issue

Tony Abbott apologises

The prime minister is sorry about everything

Subtropical beech forest, northern NSW © Paul Curtis

Germaine Greer’s ‘White Beech’

The hero of this story is a tree or rather a species of tree

Australia at the UN Security Council

Our month-long stint as president

Zealous Gold Diggers, Bendigo, by ST Gill. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria

Clare Wright’s ‘The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka’

The full moon had a lot to answer for

More in Arts & Letters

Image of Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein: show tunes and symphonies

Centenary celebrations highlight the composer’s broad ambitions and appeal

Still from Leave No Trace

The hermitic world of Debra Granik’s ‘Leave No Trace’

The ‘Winter’s Bone’ director takes her exploration of family ties off the grid

Image of Low

Low’s ‘Double Negative’: studies in slow transformation

Twelve albums in, the Minnesota three-piece can still surprise in their unique way

Covers of Motherhood and Mothers

To have or not to have: Sheila Heti’s ‘Motherhood’ and Jacqueline Rose’s ‘Mothers’

Heti’s novel asks if a woman should have a child; Rose’s nonfiction considers how society treats her if she does

More in Noted

‘Less’ by Andrew Sean Greer

The Pulitzer Prize–winning novel is an engaging story of love and literary misadventure

Hannah Gadsby: ‘Nanette’

Believe the hype about the Tasmanian comedian’s Netflix special

Cover of A Sand Archive

‘A Sand Archive’ by Gregory Day

Day grasps landscape as an intimate living thing

Cover of The Lebs

‘The Lebs’ by Michael Mohammed Ahmad

A fresh perspective on Muslim youth in Sydney’s west

Read on

Paul Feig’s sophisticated ‘A Simple Favour’

This camp study of sociopathy is far from simple

Image of Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of Joseph Roulin’

‘MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art’

An eye candy-laden, educational treasure hunt of an exhibition

Image of Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton

Turnbull fires back

Unlike Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull never promised ‘no wrecking’

Image from ‘In Fabric’

Toronto International Film Festival 2018 (part one)

A British outlier and a British newcomer are among the stand-outs in the first part of the festival