Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan

22/12/08, Time Magazine Asia

Acclaimed for his illustrated books, The Lost Thing (1999) and The Red Tree (2001), the Australian artist, illustrator and writer, Shaun Tan, had an enormous leap in recognition with the publication of The Arrival, his miraculous, wordless graphic novel, executed entirely in sepia-tinted drawings of breathtaking beauty and originality, two years ago. It went on to bag a clutch of prestigious awards and became a New York Times bestseller.

Tan is back now with Tales from Outer Suburbia, an illustrated book of stories mostly centred around the theme of journey and far-away places. The point is beautifully executed in the book’s table of contents; taking the form of a series of impeccably drawn stamps on a parcel addressed to the dedicatee of the book, each story’s title purports to be the name of a particular country which the stamp represents, while the value of the stamp indicates the page number. An example: a stamp from the ‘country’ “Grandpa’s Story”, with the denomination 40c, is a story of that title on page 40. In fourteen stories, which carve out between them the rich territories of the strange, magical, moving, bizarre, fantastical, fabulous, mysterious, allegorical, even political, Tan has written a book that is a transforming experience for the reader.

Transformation is one of Tan’s unifying themes too. In “The Nameless Holiday”, a sort of anti-Christmas annual ritual sees the mysterious arrival of a blind reindeer on the roofs of houses that are piled with one’s most prized possessions – ‘objects [that] are so loved that their loss will be felt like a snapping of a cord to the heart’ – and leaving with those special objects. In “Broken Toys”, the children-narrator lead a lost deep-sea driver, wandering in the residential streets of suburbia, to the grumpy Mrs Katayama, who becomes a different person as a result, no longer returning broken the children’s toys that have strayed into her backyard. In “Alert but Not Alarmed”, each household is issued with intercontinental ballistic missiles by the government. These sit in the backyard for so long that people take to decorating them, stringing lights on them at Christmas time, using them as kennels or greenhouses or tool sheds. Turn the page and there are the missiles over a double-page spread, a bright, colourful garden of these strange, leafless trees under a perfect blue sky, with cockatoos and lorikeets perched on them or sitting inside them. In “No Other Country”, a secret room opens up in some of the houses of a poor, suburban neighbourhood, ‘an impossible room, somewhere between the others.’ The rooms bring with them a whole other world: palace gardens, ancient walls with allegorical frescoes, different seasons, unusual blossoms. Drawn as a pastiche of Italian Renaissance paintings and frescoes, these ‘inner courtyards’, as they are dubbed by the residents, bring unexpected redemption to hard-bitten lives.

In the book’s most moving story, “Distant Rain”, done entirely in simulated collage, with drawings of pieces of paper with writing on them, scraps of hidden, unpublished, private poetry snowball together into a giant ball, which levitates over the city, then disintegrates as a new kind of precipitation. In the morning, everyone discovers a fragment, containing ‘various faded words pressed into accidental verse’. And to each reader, they ‘whisper something different’, touching his life with a ‘strange feeling of weightlessness’.

Deploying pen-and-ink, pencil, woodcuts, crayons, oils, the drawings in the book are exalting, filling you with joy and revelation. The heart swells to see such beauty, such a different vision, such originality and newly-minted loveliness on each page. In “Eric”, the cultural strangeness of the eponymous foreign exchange student has been given embodiment as a tiny two-dimensional creature with a leaf for a head. Crucially, Tan can also write: his stories, all striking in their effortless ability to rearrange the pattern of reality to show us a new design each time, are written in an evocative prose, supple, lean and fluent. Here is the poetic ending of “The Nameless Holiday”: ‘And then there is the letting go as your muscles release, your lungs exhale, and the backwash of longing leaves behind this one image on the shore of memory: a huge reindeer on your roof, bowing down.’ Seek this book out for it’ll add something immeasurably magical and wondrous to your world.