Tales from the Inner City

Shaun Tan
Star Rating
Reviewer's Rating
Jan 7, 2019


Marvelous, otherworldly, enthralling, haunting, wonderful. Magical.

Working in libraries has cured my of my book-hoarding obsession. I have such easy access to nearly anything I want on a daily basis, I no longer feel much need to own the books myself. This is one of the rare exceptions. It's not enough for me to have consumed this book; I want to possess it. I want to repeatedly immerse myself in it and dwell in it. I want to become a part of it and make it a part of me.

Explanation is a luxury we can't afford these days, and reality doesn't care for it, being far too busy following its own unknowable course.

This is not the kind of book you open looking for explanations. It is not one to understand, to carefully analyze with logic. This is a book of intuition. It speaks to your associative brain. It offers not rational meaning but meaningful feeling. You "get it" without being able to say just what it is you're getting.

Tales from the Inner City is a collection of short stories paired with images, each about an intersection of humans with an animal. Each tale is a different animal--literally and figuratively. Some are a few sentences, some ten or twelve pages, most somewhere in between. Most have inexplicable and supernatural occurrences that come with no explanation. They are intentionally vague and hazy and mythical. All implicitly consider the consequences of civilization on the natural world.

The "frog" tale (none of the tales have titles, merely the silhouette of a creature), for instance, opens with:

One afternoon the members of the board all turned into frogs. You might say they had it coming, but that's not what this story is about. This story is about the person who found them like that.

Or the opening tale, about a high rise whose eighty-seventh floor is secretly a crocodile habitat. Or the boy genius who dreamed about hippos. Or this, the shortest tale of all:

The rhino was on the freeway again.

We blew our horns in outrage!

Men came, shot it dead, pushed it to one side.

We blew our horns in gratitude!

But that was yesterday.

Today we all feel terrible.

Nobody knew it was the last rhino.

How could we have known it was the last one?

This is not a lecture. Yes, there are sadness and regret and acknowledgment of human error, but the book is not designed to be a guilt trip. There are stories of joy and wonder as well. They are complex and nuanced and full of confusing ambivalence. Not frustrating confusion, though. Reality is a muddle, after all. And these tales tap into that muddle magically.

They transport you into the heart of things.

Don't you know I am as old as the blood in your veins? I was running along the wintered fibers of your soul before you were even a pup, a cub, a kit, a pulse in your mother's womb! I know your every thought and feeling, more than you do yourself, every craving, every fear and dream and vice and embarrassing secret, I know them all. So please, pay no mind as I ransack the bottom drawers of your subconscious. There's nothing here that I haven't already seen a thousand times before, and a fox has no appetite for shame.

Reviewed by Chris K.
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