Summertime and the living is uneasy

Rules of Summer
By Shaun Tan
Lothian, 48pp, $24.99

Review by Cefn Ridout

There’s a scene in Shaun Tan’s new picture book Rules of Summer that elegantly embodies its spirit and design. It’s an evocative panorama stretched across the endpapers of this compendium of summertime commandments. It’s a view from the heart, framed by memory and imagination.

The sunlit image reveals a young lad racing across an endless field chasing an older boy piloting a homemade rocketship. Behind them, huge trees loom with hidden mysteries, while a faded industrial town broods on the distant horizon. Oblivious to his hopeful passenger, the junior rocketeer flies on, eyes fixed on unknown adventures beyond the page.

This telling tableau prepares readers for the beguiling, strangely familiar dreamscapes that are a Shaun Tan hallmark – a fuzzy, waking world that is at once literal and magical, vivid and elusive, whimsical and occasionally menacing. Character and story arise from these mythic terrains and, as with the best fables, boundaries are established and promptly transgressed. Tan’s open-ended tales invariably suggest possibilities beyond the frame, creating an imaginative space for readers to inhabit the stories.

Rules of Summer presents a series of vignettes loosely tethered to an instructional narrative; a set of seemingly arbitrary directives intended to help a young boy understand his vast, capricious world and his place in it. A Rough Guide to Terror Incognita. True to its fairy tale form, the boy’s rites of passage grow progressively darker when his older, know-all companion takes things too far and their one-sided relationship erupts in violence, estrangement and eventually reconciliation… at least until next summer.

As with Tan’s other books, nothing is what it seems and the path to enlightenment is rarely straightforward. The hapless newcomer unwittingly breaks every rule, triggering absurd repercussions: being stalked by a monstrous hare for leaving a red sock on a clothesline, intimidated by a party of formally-dressed falcons for taking the last olive, invaded by a primordial backyard for having left a door open overnight, threatened by a tornado for stepping on a snail and thwarted from entering paradise without a password.

The boys’ misadventures, limned with a mischievous sense of mystery and drama, play out under the gaze of a solitary, ever-present crow. It is a harbinger of the chilling finale, in which a swarm of carrion escorts the failed and shackled novice on a one-way train ride through an ashen underworld… until the older boy comes to his senses and to the rescue – Orpheus with bolt cutters.

Never leave a red sock on the clothesline.

Never leave a red sock on the clothesline.

It’s a seamless, silent sequence, reminiscent of Tan’s celebrated graphic novel The Arrival, yet the artist remains unsure of his storytelling skills. For him, the image is paramount, from which everything else flows. As he mentioned on Radio National recently: “I tend to do the pictures (first) and the story seems to emerge from them. I find it hard to construct narratives, so I focus on the jigsaw pieces and see how they might fit together.” The result is an ambiguous, lively tension between word and image, where neither clarifies the other, fuelling unexpected associations. Reading too much into a Shaun Tan book is a necessary good.

Rules of Summer also enables Tan to indulge in his first love, oil painting, which brings a lush, palpable sense of place to his imaginary landscapes. He swaps the tight grid and graphite drawings of The Arrival for a vibrant palette and broad canvasses to capture the immense skies and parched flatlands of his childhood in suburban Perth and the secret laneways of his current inner-city Melbourne home, with detours through Manhattan, Tuscany and Mordor. It’s a sweeping perspective that similarly informs his visual style.

From the stark urban compositions of Jeffrey Smart and Giorgio De Chirico, to the abstract, sensual impastos of Fred Williams and Brett Whiteley, to the nightmare visions of Francisco Goya and Albert Tucker, to the vivid, otherworldly fantasias of Chris Van Allsburg and Hayao Miyazaki, Tan absorbs and synthesises a host of artistic influences with flair and wit. Fittingly, Rules of Summer is presented in a sumptuous, coffee-table format with impeccable reproduction values that do justice to the detail and texture of his brushwork.

The search for sanctuary and belonging features prominently in Shaun Tan’s work. And Rules of Summer is no exception. While his two young protagonists sometimes feel like sketchy figures in a landscape in search of a story, there’s an engaging authenticity to their relationship. And though it may not be as emotionally resonant as sustained narratives like The Arrival or The Lost Thing, Tan’s richly immersive landscapes lend the book a subtle, affecting power.

In blurring the commonplace and the make-believe, Rules of Summer invites a more spirited way of seeing and brings a contemporary sensibility to what JRR Tolkein saw as the essence of fairy tales, “the realisation of imagined wonder”.

(An edited version of this review previously appeared in The Weekend Australian Review, 30 November 2013)


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