Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Keep an Eye on the Little Guy - #35

STORY: "Eric" by Shaun Tan – And oh-em-gee I did NOT know this when I picked this story, but it's available online! Legitimately! Go HERE to read.

FROM: TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009)

BASICALLY: Illustrated story in which a family tries to be good hosts to a "foreign exchange student" named Eric. If he seems unaccountably interested in the strangest things, like serial numbers and stray buttons, they kindly to chalk it up to cultural differences. Then Eric leaves! They're puzzled--did they do something wrong?--but it turns out he's left behind a one-of-a-kind message for them.

In general, all stories do the same things. They interest the reader by invoking curiosity/wonder/fear/sadness/identification. They create desires and they create tension by not fulfilling those desires but then they fulfill them and it's such a relief. Like in that quote by James Wood I mentioned in story #26, literature must "manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level."  [Edited to add: I also mentioned the quote in story #17, so apparently it's time for me to dig up a new quote to mention.  Hrmph.]

And that's why it doesn't matter that this is a story in a book for kids, nor that part of the storytelling occurs by means of the illustrations. Personally, I love children's literature and I love art, and the fact that at this late stage in the game it's highly unlikely that I'll suddenly blossom with unsuspected artistic talents of my own, does not deter me one bit from wanting to know how a story like this works.

Eric, the so-called foreign exchange student, is shown in the story's illustrations to be a cute little poky-headed leaf-like guy, small enough to fit in a teacup. An alien, maybe? An elf of some kind? He's carrying luggage made of nutshells, for cripes sake. But the black-and-white pencil drawings are realistic, and the text never refers to the strangeness of Eric's looks, so immediately this unlooked-for irony creates tension—like, what's THAT dichotomy all about, huh?

Leaving that question hanging, the narrator's character gets developed. "But sometimes I wondered if Eric was happy," says this pensive child. And, 
Secretly I had been looking forward to having a foreign visitor – I had so many things to show him. For once I could be a local expert, a fountain of interesting facts and opinions. Fortunately, Eric was very curious and always had plenty of questions.

However, they weren't the kinds of questions I had been expecting. 
So, now we have the question of what this foreigner really is AND we have the narrator's desire to seem useful and knowledgeable. But the illustration serves to deepen the first's mystery and to block the second—Eric appears to be asking about the tail on the capital letter Q on a box, he peers under the stamp on an envelope. He's not at all interested in the things the narrator might know about. 
Most of the time I could only say, "I'm not really sure, " or, "That's just how it is." I didn't feel very helpful at all. 
(By the way, this is a beautifully-designed book, which you can't appreciate while reading the story on the web. The text layout makes a little more sense, too—each page works the illustration organically into the narrative; it's not just a big block of text underneath a picture like it is in the Guardian slideshow. I just thought I'd mention that.)

Now, it's all well and good to notice how brilliantly Tan uses a wordless picture of Eric pointing questioningly to the serial number on some sort of computer cord and quite another to apply the lesson for those of us who aren't so talented with the visuals.

But I'd argue that while Tan's technique is particular to him, he's making the same kinds of decisions about storytelling that any other writer would be. For example, these particular illustrations are so charming partly because they're so specific. It's not just any old run of the mill power cord that Eric's peering at. It's probably for a monitor or something else that I should know but don't—notice how I find that I'd be just as helpless as the narrator in the story.

Tan also uses compression in his pictures. Take a look at that image of Eric holding up a piece of paper with a picture of a flower and a question mark on it while he points inquiringly to the flower-shape of the drain. An entire conversation is summed up in that picture and conveyed to the reader without the reader having to actually sit through it. Now, obviously, you can't do that same exact literal thing in words, but you certainly can understand that less is more. If it doesn't need to be spelled out, that's a good argument for not spelling it out.

Point of view is also crucial to Tan's telling of this story. Although Eric is present in every illustration (except the final two, after he leaves), the narrator and his or her family are in exactly none. As readers, we stay inside the mind of the child telling the story, looking out through their eyes. Because their gaze remains centered on Eric (and, after he's gone, on the places where he used to be) the story is about Eric—and how this child sees him.

In what I've read so far of TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA, Tan likes to keep his endings loose. The finale of "Eric" really raises more questions than it answers. I happen to like that quality about Tan's book; it's part of what gives a sense of wonder and expansiveness to the stories because there's always something left to be told. Nonetheless, this ending does confirm for the reader that Eric is some sort of otherworldly being, not governed by human rules, and it does give the narrator something satisfying to be a tour guide about. So Tan walks a fine line between satisfying the desires he's raised in the reader and defying their expectations in a way that will hopefully entertain. I think it's pretty great. What do you think?


Melissa said...

A charming little story.

Post a Comment