Rules for life

Gi­ant red rab­bits and large men­ac­ing birds in din­ner jack­ets and cats in slip­pers ... Shaun Tan’s words are as mys­te­ri­ous as his beau­ti­ful draw­ings, and just as en­gag­ing.

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makes a whole book, pro­vid­ing words and pic­tures, you can’t have one as­pect with­out the other. The words may be cryptic, they may not make up the usual story pat­tern – con­flict, cli­max, res­o­lu­tion – but they of­fer the reader a start­ing point to cre­ate that struc­ture for her­self. They set the wheels of the imag­i­na­tion in mo­tion, and that’s also what his art does.

Tan’s pic­tures tend to con­tain rather fan­tas­tic de­tails that can be in­ter­preted in count­less ways. I think it’s a good idea to ap­proach his words in the same way. If you want to read a tra­di­tional type of story, with a be­gin­ning, mid­dle and end, you may be left want­ing, but if you like the idea of work­ing in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the au­thor/ il­lus­tra­tor to cre­ate a story that is to­tally your own, then Shaun Tan is the sto­ry­teller for you.

“Never break the rules. Es­pe­cially if you don’t un­der­stand them.” My ther­a­pist said to me just yes­ter­day that if we find our­selves break­ing per­sonal life rules, we should see it as a red flag, a warn­ing that things aren’t quite what they should be. Thus, we should pause and take stock of the sit­u­a­tion, not just plunge wildly on.

I guess rules are there for a rea­son. They serve to pro­tect and pre­serve, to limit dam­age. You know what I’ve said be­fore about books com­ing along at just the right mo­ments? It’s hap­pened again with Rules Of Sum­mer. Tan’s guide to a suc­cess­ful sum­mer is a guide to life. “Never eat the last olive at a party”, “Never leave a red sock on the clothes­line”, “Never drop your jar” ... th­ese rules are spe­cific to the book and the pic­tures they ac­com­pany, and you can take them lit­er­ally or imag­ine that they are metaphors for deeper, larger truths and con­di­tions.

The world Tan de­picts is full of threats, but so is the real world. Who’s to say that gi­ant red rab­bits and large men­ac­ing birds in din­ner jack­ets aren’t sym­bols – of our fears, of so­cial con­ven­tions, of pub­lic opin­ion and ev­ery­thing else we grap­ple with in life.

“Never give your keys to a stranger.” Yes, that’s a pretty sen­si­ble rule that ap­plies across the board. It ac­com­pa­nies one of my favourite pic­tures in the book: A young boy peers though the win­dow, look­ing into room, lit only by the flick­er­ing light of a tele­vi­sion. In­side, seated on the sofa, watch­ing the telly and eat­ing crisps, is another boy and a large py­jama-wear­ing cat. Ar­ranged neatly in a row on the floor be­side the sofa are their slip­pers – the cat’s re­sem­ble large, hol­lowed-out paws. On the wall above the sofa, a por­trait of the cat and the boy, and the shad­ows of the pair ... two cat sil­hou­ettes, four pointed cat ears.... Oh the sto­ries you could weave around this pic­ture!

“Never wait for an apol­ogy.” I love this rule, to which can be added, “Those id­iots will never ad­mit they’re in the wrong,” as well as “Ask for one in­stead, but don’t be dis­ap­pointed if all you get is a blank, mo­ronic stare.”

“Al­ways know the way home.” Very good ad­vice for chil­dren who, of­ten, don’t even know the name of the street they live in, but for me, with home as a metaphor for per­sonal ideals and prin­ci­ples, an im­por­tant rule for liv­ing a life of in­tegrity and hon­our.

This is def­i­nitely my favourite pic­ture book of 2013. When I first read the book, I found it strange and some­what dis­turb­ing, but the more I looked at the art – rich, dark and gothic, mys­te­ri­ous and as­ton­ish­ing – and read the de­cep­tively sim­ple words, the more I was in­spired, moved and even com­forted.

Life is of­ten puz­zling and painful, but with time comes com­pre­hen­sion and rev­e­la­tion. Rules are cre­ated as a re­sult of ex­pe­ri­ence. Well, rules to live by should be, at any rate, the re­sult of per­sonal trial and er­ror, and a care­fully-thought-out, slowl­yarrived-at knowl­edge of things. Rules Of Sum­mer of­fers talk­ing and think­ing points that ex­plore life’s tricky ups and downs, twists and turns. May we sur­vive all the blind cor­ners in our in­di­vid­ual jour­neys, and live to write our own rules of sum­mer, of life.

Daphne Lee is a writer, ed­i­tor, book re­viewer and teacher. She runs a Face­book group called The Places You Will Go for lovers of all kinds of lit­er­a­ture. Write to her at star2@thes­

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