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Shaun Tan’s Outer Limits

Tales from Outer SuburbiaTales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan

Reviewed by Sarah Miller
Powells.com

Fragmented stories and captivating images are eloquently woven into Shaun Tan's newest book Tales from Outer Suburbia. Tan, known for his breadth of subject matters, ranging from political and social commentary to historically significant events, does not disappoint his readers with this collection of 15 vignettes, each drawing from the oddities of suburban life.

The Art

This book is a study of art. I found myself poring over the images, my eyes overcome by the various types of artistic elements and the vast amount of media used: acrylic, oil on paper, oil on wood, graphite and colored pencils, gesso, paper collage, ink, watercolor, ball-point pen, digital, scraperboard/scratchboard, gouache, photocopied text, pastel crayon.

The pictures are collections of images from Tan's sketchbook; as he explains on his website: "all of the stories in Suburbia are the products of 'homeless' sketchbook doodles and half-articulated ideas -- those that I have found especially intriguing, or accidentally poetic in some way."

And, they're more than mere images. The color palettes, line qualities, and choice of media bring an additional element of style that beautifully complements the tone of the stories, such as the use of harsh contoured lines in "Grandpa's Story," a fast-paced tale of a perilous journey. Tan also uses the art to portray a prominent message, such as in "Alert but Not Alarmed." The saturated oil paintings, bright and colorful, depict missiles placed in suburban backyards, each pointing to an unknown enemy from afar. This subtle juxtaposition challenges the reader to recognize the gravity of its symbolism.

The Story

In each story, Tan brings together little elements that create a whole, namely, the events in any suburban town -- assuming, of course, your suburban town has a water buffalo that never speaks but always points you in the direction of your question's answer. Reminiscent of Edward Gorey's writing, the vignettes are whimsical yet profound. Each is a window into the author's subconscious and, yes, sometimes they leave you scratching your head. Tan explains, "the stories and illustrations feel very removed from anything real. I think each story is galvanized by that difference or tension, trying to bring reality and fantasy together, in a way that feels honest and correct -- at least as a faithful 'parallel world.'"

The stories, raw and disjointed at times, mimic the feel of the artist's sketchbook doodles, but each finds its path in the end, often embodying social and political messages. "Eric" is the story of a foreign exchange student, seemingly from another planet, who asks questions the host does not expect, such as, why are sink drains shaped like a flower? This observation reminds us to take note of our surroundings, from time to time, to gain the perspective of a stranger from another land.

The Story and the Art

Together the stories and the art form a bridge between the fantastic world and the real world. Tan encapsulates every element of art and design into his stories, down to the layout. For example, "The Amnesia Machine" is arranged like a two-page spread in a newspaper. "Make Your Own Pet," on the other hand, is a cut-and-paste collage, filled with notebook paper and differing handwriting. Other stories have a traditional layout with text on one side, picture on the other.

Books mentioned in this post




2 Responses to "Shaun Tan’s Outer Limits"

  1.  
    s h a r o n April 4th, 2009 at 7:16 am

    Sounds delightful, charming, just the thing I'd like to gently retrieve from the shelf at Powell's, enjoy the illustrations, read a couple of the stories, and gently replace the volume on the shelf. In fact, did anyone see the article in "Profiles" in the April 6 New Yorker about the Dickman twins? One of them readily admitted to this very habit, frequenting Powell's to lurk with a new book, then return it to the shelf. (It was stupid of me to think I'm the only one who does that...not at Powell's, of course.)

    My bookshelves are full--no room to expand without relinquishing some of their prized contents. As it is, I prefer used books. One especially noteworthy purchase ($3.50), is an early, early 20th century printing of Moby Dick. (The first time I cracked it, having looked forward to my session before bedtime with much longing, the binding (literally) cracked. (Double entendre?) Now, I won't touch it until I find a way to have it repaired. Re-binding (such as public libraries do) is not an option.

    I really love to read, and want to learn about recently published books, but don't want to own new books. The furtive perusal without purchase is my preference. I wish there were a way to recognize/honor/compensate authors for their skill and effort; but the publishing industry rankles me, and the prices of new books way beyond my budget.

  2.  
    Robot Boy April 16th, 2009 at 12:25 am

    This review reads like it was written by a teenager.

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