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Review by Cara Lennon
Shaun Tan’s Tales from the Inner City is a collection of short stories about a people out of touch with their world. Animals, memories of animals, fantasies of animals infiltrate the cities we’ve built, a reminder there are some natural forces that won’t be ignored. Animals with agendas. They may be here to help us, hunt us, or litigate, but most importantly they’re here because they exist.
Tan began his career as a illustrator before writing and illustrating his own works, and it’s the artwork that’s definitely the star here. Tan paints the grey corners of metropolitan living as desolate but beautifully textured, an impersonal backdrop you could drown in but for extremely personal interest of owls, lungfish, foxes and bears. As wonderful as the short stories are, it’s the illustrations that’ll haunt you. That and the loneliness of Tan’s version of us, a species so lost it takes us exceptional effort to see even each other.
Tales from the Inner City is the sister work to Tan’s earlier Tales from Outer Suburbia. Whereas Tales from Outer Suburbia treats the ‘burbs as a fringe where all the weird things go, Tales from the Inner City has a dreamy introspective quality—specifically the kind of dream you desperately want to remember when you wake up, and are sad to find slipping away from you. Tan describes his book as a flow of daydreams triggered by a story about crocodiles living in a skyscraper.
“Our current way of life is, historically speaking… a kind of glitch in geological time marked by great separations and abstractions.”
Tan’s writing style is poetic (the good kind) and more concerned with ideas and feeling than characters or plot. What story there is, is the kind you can draw from a photo, an overheard conversation, a paragraph of a newspaper article. What happens might be small, but what it means is huge and strange.
Tan spends most of his words on the situations, the emotions they provoke, and of course, the animals. There’s a collective narrative about the nature and destiny of humans that’s mostly implied, given shape when the works are read all together.
The two Tales volumes are picture books for grown-ups in existential crisis (or if they aren’t beforehand, they might be afterwards). While there are some healing moments in Tales from the Inner City, they’re far between in a series of reflections on the spiritual cost of being completely cut off from nature in the heart of urbanity.
Worth it for the art alone, or if you go for wistfulness, nostalgia, wanderlust. One for readers with a strong sense of the otherwhere and otherwhen.