Reif Larsen: The Selected Works Of T.S. Spivet
Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works Of T.S. Spivet (2009) caused a bit of storm last year when the American rights were snapped up for almost a million dollars. Its interesting presentation and quirky delivery were no doubt a contributing factor, and it will see release in many more countries. One of those is of course the United Kingdom, where it has recently been published by Harvill-Secker, an imprint best suited to putting it on store shelves, producing as they do a fine line in hardbacks. (See here.)
What makes this particular novel special is that the novel is illustrated throughout with a variety of sketches and diagrams – some colour, some black and white – all drawn by the author, although credited to the eponymous T.S. Spivet. Presentation-wise, it’s a work of art, although it’s unconventional breadth may see it struggle to slot in easily to some book cases.
The novel focuses on Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, a “12 year-old genius mapmaker”, as the blurb tells us, who lives with his family on a ranch in Montana. In what seems to be a family tradition of sorts, a woman of science has married a man of the land, and TS falls down squarely on his mother’s side as far as his intellectual development goes. The maps he makes show all manner of observations, from how his sister, Gracie, shucks corn to the distribution of McDonalds in North Dakota.
…since Neolithic times we had been marking down representations on cave walls, in the dirt, on parchments, trees, lunch plates, napkins, even on our own skin so that we could remember where we have been, where we want to be going, where we should be going. There was a deep impulse ingrained in us to take these directions, coordinates, declarations out of the mush of our heads and actualize them in the real world. Since making my first maps of shaking hands with God, I had learned that the representation was not the real thing, but in a way this dissonance was what made it so good: the distance between the map and the territory allowed us breathing room to figure out where we stood.
Life on the farm is quite slow, so it’s with much relief that the narrative receives immediate propulsion from a phonecall informing TS that he has won a prestigious Baird Fellowship from the Smithsonian. His age unbeknownst to the institution, TS takes the decision to run away to Washington to deliver a speech and it’s this journey, of one young boy heading out into the world, that forms the backbone of The Selected Works Of TS Spivet.
In the mix of a journey and of a gifted child I was reminded of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time, a children’s book about an autistic boy who takes a journey of his own to London. Not so much for the principal similarities, but by what’s learnt about the mothers of each child. TS, on making his way to Washington, steals one of his mother’s notebooks and learns more about her, and his family, than he previously knew, his trip becoming a journey of discovery in more ways than one.
When it comes to children as narrators I admit to having a bit of a bugbear about them being precocious, moreso in the hands of new writers. I think this stems from my viewing it as daft way to impart the character with a unique trait. After all, some of the better child narrators I’ve read – Holden Caulfield in The Catcher In The Rye or Paddy Clarke – have little to recommend them, yet their delivery, innocence, and frailty makes them memorable. Where those characters had believable voices, it’s hard to accept that any twelve year old, genius or not, would come up with phrasings like this:
I was no advertising expert, but in observing my own behavior in the vicinity of McDonalds, I had mapped out a working theory about how the place penetrates my permeable barrier of aesthetic longing, in a trio of multi-sensory persuasion:
Did the true, umbilical love that binds people together for the rest of their lives require a certain intellectual dislocution in order to push past our insistent rationalization and enter the rough, uneven space inside our hearts?
Where TS Spivet’s delivery does work, however, is in the sidebars that accompany the text. While infuriated by the volume of footnotes in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, the lines leading off from the end of paragraphs to small paragraphs or diagrams at the side of the page is effective. Typically they fill in some more detail without upsetting the narrative, but the best ones are the occasional visual gags that do highlight the world of an inquisitive mind.
At one point in the novel TS highlights five types of boredom experienced by his sister. In reading this book I may have a case for a sixth because, for all its visual flair, the novel never truly captured my imagination. Not once could I say I was there, part of Spivet’s adventure, and not once could I say I believed in him as a character, no matter his eccentricities.
The last quarter of the book does pick up the pace and the heightened vocabulary noticably takes a backseat, but it all leads to a rather jarring sentimental affair at odds with the rest of the story. Even with all the maps in this book, it would seem there’s still the capacity to get lost. I’d like to say it may be a case of Larsen going back to the drawing board, but, then, there’s nothing wrong with his drawings.
May 26, 2009