Gary K. Wolfe Reviews Tales from the Inner City by Shaun Tan
Tales from the Inner City, Shaun Tan (Arthur A. Levine Books 978-1-338-29840-6, $24.99, 224pp, hc) October 2018.
Shaun Tan’s always remarkable work, from his Oscar-winning short The Lost Thing to his wordless fable of immigration The Arrival, often returns to themes of alienation and belonging, and in Tales from the Inner City he takes on very nearly the whole of nature vs. civilization, or at least the ongoing negotiations between the animal world and the infrastructures, schedules, and bureaucracies we’ve tried to impose on it. Bears decide to mount a class-action suit against humanity, crocodiles take over the 87th floor of a high-rise, giant snails make love on highway overpasses, the members of a corporate board all suddenly turn into frogs, lungfish show up everywhere after a hurricane and gradually take on human features and eventually develop a miniature society that seems superior to our own. Sometimes Tan’s spare and graceful poems and prose sketches carry the weight of his narratives, as in a tale in which a family’s missing cat turns out to be everyone’s missing cat; sometimes the burden rests largely with the characteristically muted and luminous paintings, as in a poem about dogs and their humans which gives rise to no fewer than 13 paintings, most of them double-page spreads using the same angular design elements to suggest varieties of alienation and cooperation. On occasion, a painting implies the whole story, as in a kind of prologue image of deer gazing out from a forest through a window that overlooks a city skyline.
None of the individual stories or sketches are given titles, and the rather beguiling table of contents consists only of silhouettes of the birds and animals that are the subjects of the various pieces. Sometimes these pieces are little more than dreamlike visions – countless butterflies appearing out of nowhere and inundating the city, an orca removed from the sea and placed in the sky – and sometimes Tan constructs a full-fledged short story, such as the tale about a spectacularly brilliant prodigy who survives the celebrity of being a boy genius to work in menial jobs, where he dreams about hippos. I take Tan’s overall title to refer not to the “inner city” of sociologists and economists, but rather to the hidden city in which nature survives in unexpected ways. It would be far too reductive, though, to reduce Tan’s endlessly inventive visions to environmental cautionary tales, although a few are quite explicitly that – such as a brief poem about motorists cheering when a rhino clogging freeway traffic is shot and removed – but “Nobody knew it was the last rhino.” For the most part, though, Tan’s words and pictures develop a haunting synergy that is as much about mystery as about advocacy. As the narrator of the lungfish tale observes – as the lungfish begin to develop human faces – “explanation is a luxury we can’t afford these days, and reality doesn’t care for it, being far too busy following its own unknowable course.” Tales from the Inner City is a gorgeous charting of that course.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and more like it in the December 2018 issue of Locus.
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