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.

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