From the publisher, “Breathtakingly illustrated and hauntingly written, Tales from Outer Suburbia is by turns hilarious and poignant, perceptive and goofy. Through a series of captivating and sophisticated illustrated stories, Tan explores the precious strangeness of our existence. He gives us a portrait of modern suburban existence filtered through a wickedly Monty Pythonesque lens. Whether it’s discovering that the world really does stop at the end of the city’s map book, or a family’s lesson in tolerance through an alien cultural exchange student, Tan’s deft, sweet social satire brings us face-to-face with the humor and absurdity of modern life.”
This review may come off as a bit biased because I love “The Arrival.” Honestly, it isn’t so much as an “apple to oranges” kind of comparison between the two books, but maybe a comparison of two of the most glorious pieces of fruit one can eat. Each is wonderful in its own way.
Both of these novels are excellent, but they are different in a slight, albeit essential way. There are words in “Tales From Outer Suburbia”… The experience of Shaun Tan’s illustrations is a bit more on the nose.
“Tales From Outer Suburbia” is a collection of fifteen nuanced short stories. All are threaded together with an exploration of the vapidness, bewilderment, joy, sorrow, and enlightenment of living in the suburbs; specifically the suburbs of eastern Australia. Each of the stories is captivating and a hell of a lot deeper than the two or three pages devoted to each. For example “Stick Figures,” is a story about wooden stick figures that are part of a suburban landscape. They move unimaginably slowly, and their purpose is not precisely known. However, if you think about suburbia and the little bits of nature that come through the manicured lawns and the shopping malls, nature could very much seem like an unknowable creature that exists, but we have no idea the purpose. As someone who has spent much of their life living in the suburbs and had to travel to visit nature, I get what he is trying to say. Nature can become unknowable.
Another glorious story was “No Other Country.” This story explores what it means to be a person of two ideals. The unexplored model of what a place should be as one ideal and the current situation you live in as the other.
What if you could escape to the ideal place at your leisure? Would that change how you felt about your current living situation? Again this taps into a lot of what Shaun Tan writes about in “The Arrival.” The idealized world and the reality. Would you appreciate your reality if you could escape it once in a while? It is a powerful short story, and absolutely worth the read.
I feel like reading a Shaun Tan book is meditative. They are never boring, beautifully written, and gorgeously illustrated. However, his work is saturated with calmness and purposefulness. His words and images are impactful without being jarring. You don’t see that often in any type of literary work. It speaks to mastery of craft that I feel privileged to partake in as a reader. As you can probably tell, I am a fan and recommend his work. However, it isn’t for everyone. It is fanciful and calm and deep. Sometimes, that is not what one needs in their books. So my suggestion is that if you are feeling self-reflective or full of ennui, give one of his novels a try. I doubt that you would regret the experience.