Friday, August 30, 2013

Suburban Fantasy: the Bird King

I've been thinking about the topic of suburban fantasy for a long time. It has not been properly coined, or else I haven't seen it used formally as a category, yet it is probably one of my favorite genres. No expert on literary movements, I am probably ill-qualified to write this post: but how do movements come about except through individual writers following their own gut instincts?

So. What is suburban fantasy?

Fantasy in a suburban setting. The story takes place in a contemporary, realistic setting, in which, perhaps, the magic is hidden (to use a Diana Wynne Jones term, the world is Naywards). Adults may be skeptical of the magic, and the gutsy preteen protagonist may have to keep his/her magic hidden from the parents and the school administration. Alternatively, the suburb itself has magic quietly asserting itself in ordinary, everyday situations.

I'll go into more depth on the characteristics of the first flavor, which tends to show up a lot in children's books, at a later time. The second is what concerns me tonight, and the reason for that is Shaun Tan.


Shaun Tan is the Bird King and the emperor or high priest or someone Super Important in the unincorporated universe of suburban fantasy. The rest of this post, I warn you, will be an appreciation post, featuring extensive quotes from Tan's writings, with some of my commentary.

Concept Art for "The Nameless Holiday"
from Tales from Outer Suburbia
by Shaun Tan

Oh yes, and absolutely gorgeous art.

Today, I spent the afternoon at the library, as I don't do enough, and I read two Tan books: Tales from Outer Suburbia and The Arrival. Absolutely stunning, both of them. TfOS is a collection of short stories told in both prose and picture; The Arrival is told entirely through images.

I'm going to quote from His Majesty Tan's "Comments on Tales from Outer Suburbia":

‘Outer Suburbia’ might refer both to a state of mind as well as a place: somewhere close and familiar but also on the edge of consciousness (and not unlike ‘outer space’). Suburbia is often represented as a banal, quotidian, even boring place that escapes much notice. Yet I think it is also a fine substitute for the medieval forests of fairytale lore, a place of subconscious imaginings. I've always found the idea of suburban ‘fantasy’ very appealing, in my own work as well as those of other writers and artists, because of the contrast between the mundane and extraordinary, the effect of which can be amusing or unsettling, and potentially thought-provoking.
He uses the term suburban fantasy! So it's not just me. I too find the juxtaposition of the weird with the everyday wonderful. Suburban fantasy is basically everything I did as a kid: my backyard is really a swamp and the garden stake is really a sword. Let's kill monsters, then go inside and have crackers and watch Pokemon.

Also, I can't be the only one who finds something beautiful about suburbia. I love walking through my neighborhood, especially in the late afternoon when the light makes everything golden. Endless amber streets, ordinary houses with well- or poorly-tended gardens, unexpected pathways, the dull whistle of a train...

Endgame - Shaun Tan, 1996
Northern suburbia did feel at that time like the edge of the world, relentlessly ordinary, yet also liberating in being so quiet and uncluttered, and not without a strange beauty. A lot of my paintings as an adolescent are large canvases depicting silent suburban landscapes: empty footpaths, shady parks, rows of blank-faced houses, deeply shadowed windows and wide roads, things I saw everyday. The other half of my artistic interest was preoccupied with something almost contradictory: science fiction and fantasy, strange worlds far beyond everyday observation. This remains true of my creative work as an adult: half of my attention is fixed upon everyday suburban landscapes, which I often photograph and paint, while much of my time is spent drawing imaginary characters and fictional worlds. I find both equally fascinating.
Cities impose their identity upon you. But suburbia - tabula rasa suburbia, tame suburbia, sanitized world - a child could take over suburbia. I say that with not derision but possibility.

I’m often looking for ways to bridging those two interests, an ambition made obvious in Tales from Outer Suburbia. Many of the book’s images refer directly to places I have visited or lived within, and are imbued with the same kind of atmosphere that exists in my ‘real world’ paintings. At the same time, the stories and illustrations feel very removed from anything real. I think each story is galvanised by that difference or tension, trying to bring reality and fantasy together, in a way that feels honest and correct – at least as a faithful ‘parallel world’.
Paraphrasing what a reviewer said about Theodora Goss's writing that she quoted in a blog post that I read a long time ago - "treating fantasy as though it were realism." That's the spirit.

All of the paintings in this story ["Stick Figures"] represent the immediate environment of my childhood and adolescence, in the sprawling northern suburbs of Perth; people who live there will recognise this immediately. It’s a vast, quiet landscape that I’ve been attracted to as a subject for painting over many years. In my early twenties I painted several works featuring local streets, populated only by a few crows. Sometimes the crows were fighting or gathering on power-lines, but mostly they were just standing around, as if waiting for something to happen (long, wailing crow calls in the sunburnt afternoon air feature strongly in the soundtrack of my childhood).
Yes, there's the sense of waiting in suburbia. First you wait to grow up, then you wait (or rather, can't wait) to get out. I'm getting theoretical here: Suburbia is usually thought of as a means to an ends - people settle in suburbia to send their kids to nice safe schools - and so are one long liminal moment, full of possibility of transformations.

From "Our Expedition"
from Tales from Outer Suburbia
by Shaun Tan
As kids my brother and I once walked home across two or three suburbs, having no other means of transport due to a bus strike. It seemed to take forever, and really made me think about the scale of suburbia, not just its size, but its relentless repetition of ideas – housing styles, parks, shopping squares, and identical roads that seemed to have no end. This is the story that best captures for me the feeling of a suburban childhood, and the psychological boundaries that can be created by spending a long time in any one place (I did not really travel outside of Perth until I was a teenager). When everything you need is locally available, and experience is routine, it can be hard to imagine other places or ways of living – the whole world becomes small and shrink-wrapped.
Full of possibility of transformations, did I just say? Yes, it is so - yet also working, a counterpoint, is the reality or illusion of stasis, of everything being and staying the same, of suburbia taking over the universe. A quiet, dull entropy.

The real danger of suburban life is complacency, and it’s easy to forget that our lifestyle of consumption and expansion is linked directly to vast industries, and the toll they extract on the habitats of other animals. Our lives are quite abstracted from the natural world that we depend upon everyday, both geographically and psychologically, and this is something that I feel runs through many other stories in the collection, a sense of brokenness or disconnection. The question that follows is how we might recognise and respond to this.
You know what I have to tell myself over and over and over: fear complacency. Perhaps suburban fantasy needs must end with a breakout?


As I mentioned, I also read his book The Arrival today. However, that book's setting is more an out-and-out fantasy land, albeit with allegory to any and all immigrant experiences, and this post is getting quite long anyway. Thus, I shall leave you with this photoset from The Arrival, and a quote from an interview on his 2012 exhibit Suburban Odyssey:

Perth felt like a peripheral place not just physically but also in a lot of other conceptual ways. Peripheral in a positive way, implying great possibility and opportunity, a certain license to muck about in the backyard, invent your own meaning without great consequence. I often wonder if I would have felt as liberated growing up in a bigger city, surrounded by a more self-consciously artistic culture or family – maybe not.
Suburbia is one giant safety net. Without as much obvious external stimulus as in another setting, the imagination is unbound.

From The Arrival
by Shaun Tan

Relevant quote from the foreword (written by Rolf Fjeld) to a volume of Henrik Ibsen's plays:

“The salient feature of the Old Quarter, we soon decide, is its diversity of styles; we pass first a Roman villa, then several gnarled stave churches, moated towers and archaic guild-halls in the Viking manner, interspersed with a ruined cabaret, a rustic summerhouse and a wittily ornamented honeymoon hotel…the variety gluts the eye; and there are more imposing works to come: two large ducal palaces, one austere and forbidding, but impressively powerful in conception, the other baroque and spaciously fantastic, with pennants flying; beyond these a small clapboard civic information booth; then a vast Romanesque cathedral with, like Chartres, two contrasting, unequal spires.

Next we cross a brief arid open space, the width of a couple of vacant lots, and suddenly arrive in what appears to be a model town of virtually identical row houses that extend to the city line. The dimensions, the basic floor plans, the somber coloring of the facades in this New Quarter seem hardly to vary…Only on closer acquaintance does one notice faint carvings of coiled serpents on the lintels, or ghosts that seem to materialize at the windows, or, on entrance, that the cellars are dark and swarming with secret life, and the attics are filled with long-forgotten things that nevertheless maintain their mysterious hold on the occupants below as they move restlessly about from room to meticulously furnished room.” (viii)

The New Quarter is, of course, a fantasy suburbia.


One final image:

The sky, as seen by me on a walk through my hometown. Pace and buona notte.

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