Everyone loves suburbia-bashing. Jeffrey Eugenides did it gently and emotionally in his debut tragedy The Virgin Suicides. David Lynch took the dark, disturbing approach in the unforgettable Blue Velvet. Arcade Fire did it honestly and powerfully with their Grammy-winning album The Suburbs. Neal Stephenson went the satire route in Snow Crash, nailed it, and the suburbs weren't even his primary setting. Granted, he isn't a “primary setting” kind of guy. But I digress.
The latest acute suburban commentator is writer/illustrator Shaun Tan. He wrote and illustrated the gorgeous wordless graphic novel The Arrival, for which he won many awards. He wins awards very often for his work. He also wrote a collection of graphic novel stories called Tales from Outer Suburbia. It is a thing of beauty and a joy for awesomeness. Let's talk about Tales from Outer Suburbia.
It goes without saying that I'm a man who loves random. You know it from my review, from my review, from my review … and if you didn't know before, you know now, I told you so. As such, I felt that Tales from Outer Suburbia would greatly appeal to me, with no other proof than the title page. On the bottom left of the left-hand page, some guy stands and stares, holding a water hose, watering the deadest yellow-green lawn of all time. On the top right of the right-hand page, some woman is rowing a rowboat down the wide suburban road, in mid-air, while a white duck stands at the rowboat's prow and a tiny raincloud showers her potted plants on the rowboat's stern. This, for me, is beauty. And the book hasn't even started yet!
Remember what I said in my review? About how the back cover can ruin a book's contents? Turn this book over, you'll see nothing more than an innocuous pair of birds in an empty lot and a few flower petals floating past the telephone poles. Turn back to the front cover, and the good stuff is right in your face: same suburban background, gentle in its earth-tone coloring, and somebody wearing a barnacle-encrusted diver's helmet is looking right at you. I love love LOVE when a book cover captures the essence of its contents, for such is the nature of Shaun Tan's short stories: startling, mysterious, serious, and surrounded by a truly solemn beauty.
Remember what I said in my review? About how smart illustrators can take full advantage of the inherent drama and surprise of a turned page? Tan plies this skill masterfully, and whether he uses it to express loveliness, terror, loss, bewilderment, or serenity, the very act of his expression is handled with the purest precision.
Through illustrations at two full pages, a single page, or just sketches along the story's border, the man makes you appreciate color. Not just in the application of many colors, for he does that brilliantly in “No Other Country” and “Alert But Not Alarmed.” He also makes you appreciate color by not using it: black-and-white illustrations in “Grandpa's Story” reminiscent of old photography, sad empty landscapes used throughout “Stick Figures,” and the somber two-page chill of “The Nameless Holiday.” He even brings back The Arrival's multi-squares-in-sepia-tone, in the sweet second story, “Eric.”
While The Arrival proves that he can tell a story without words, Tales from Outer Suburbia shows that Tan is unafraid of straight text. Many stories, such as “Undertow” and “Our Expedition,” include a full page of writing opposite a full page of illustration; “Broken Toys” even has a text-only two-page spread. The written word is also deliciously varied, both in font and layout, with charming tales like the poetic “Distant Rain,” newspaper tabloid “The Amnesia Machine,” and the supremely cute “Make Your Own Pet.”
One of the great virtues of random is its staying power: the truly strange, the really really weird, stays with us long after we experience it. Even now, flipping through the book as I write this review, I shake my head in surprise … even the super-short stories, the sorrowful “Wake,” the adrenaline-filled “Night of the Turtle Rescue,” and the strange introductory “The Water Buffalo” … they get me thinking and feeling at odd angles, setting my brain off in a different direction from before, fresher and newer and looking at everything with a smiling question mark over my head.