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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:

Or this:

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

19 responses to Reif Larsen: The Selected Works Of T.S. Spivet

  1. Welcome back, Stewart — you have been missed and your return is most appreciated. Hope the exams went okay. And I think you have saved me money with your very first review on your return. Cheers.

  2. Stewart said:

    Thanks, Kevin. It feels good to once again sit down with a book and to read for enjoyment rather than study. I doubt a review of Essentials Of Economics would have been of much interest to readers. 🙂

    I’m curious, were you thinking of reading The Selected Works Of T.S. Spivet before reading this? It has its appeal, I think, to those willing to suspend disbelief to accommodate the voice. But for those like me, who believe the credibility of the voice is an important part in accepting the book, it just didn’t deliver.

  3. John Self said:

    Yes welcome back Stewart. As you know, I’ve had mixed feelings about this book: I love the attention to detail in the design but do fear it could be far too ‘quirky’ and ‘whimsical’ for my tastes. I admit here and now that a sort of red mist descends when I hear that the narrator’s full name is Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet. And the comparison with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is interesting, as I am one of the five people in the world who didn’t like that book.

    However I do have a copy at home and will have a look at it at some point. I don’t rule out implausibly eloquent child voices – see Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk for example – but I do rule out cutesiness without good cause, and the press reviews I’ve seen seem to indicate that there is something very like that going on here. The Daily Telegraph said that we should be thankful the works are selected and not complete. Miaow.

  4. Stewart: I was wondering about it since some people I respect seem to like it. On the other hand, negative signs include over-hyping (I seem to be getting an Amazon message a day and I hardly ever buy from Amazon), child narrators and I regard the drawings as a gimmick. So maybe your review just confirmed that I don’t want to read the book.

  5. Stewart said:

    I know what you mean about hype. What nudged me to read it was a review that assured the narrator’s preciousness wasn’t a bad thing and also references, in a roundabout way, to Calvino and Borges. (!)

    I would be interested to hear the thoughts of others, especially those who liked the book. I know I really had to push myself after a while, but reading other reviews, it seems many thought the narrator was brilliant. In this I guess it’s one of those books a publisher can hit gold with, the kind that splits opinion, and everyone has to read it to find out which side of the divide they belong on.

  6. jem said:

    Great to read a review of this one. I’m really interested in reading it. It sounds like it could be my kind of thing, but getting the quirky balance right is a tricky thing to achieve. Will report back when I’ve read it.

    Good point about those over-knowing child narrators. So many times I read and I think there’s no way that’s how a child might think.

  7. Biblibio said:

    Maybe it’s because I’m a fan of strangely formatted books, but this seems kind of interesting. Plus, the website is just strange. I mean, yes, the signs of a hype do appear around it (rarely a good sign, these days) and I get nervous when I hear about genius young narrators (mostly because the majority of authors seem to forget their own childhood the moment they try to write about someone else’s…). But the strangeness is calling. I’ll probably just wait until my library stocks it. That way I won’t have to worry about the possible bookshelf fiasco, right?

  8. steffee said:

    I haven’t read this either, but, like John Self, was going to mention Oscar, the child narrator in Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, who I believe is 9 years old and who writes in a “genius” manner.

  9. Stewart said:

    I should perhaps read the Foer. The question, really, is does Oscar, for all his ‘genius’ still read like a child? If so, success. If not, Spivet.

    Jem and Bibiblio, please do return, if you read it, and let me know how you found it.

  10. steffee said:

    Oscar does read like a child. A “genius” child, possibly an advanced-for-nine child, but a child nonetheless.

  11. Stewart said:

    I went to Waterstone’s over lunch and had a read of the first few pages of Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close. That’s how you do it. It seems like Oskar can be believed: despite being smarter than your average nine-year old, there was definitely something childish in the voice. The repetition, the showing off of details that really don’t need showing off to the reader but are ultimately true to the character (“‘…Paris, which is in France'”). I’ll no doubt stick it on the list.

  12. Nancy Baxter said:

    I just finished reading “Selected Works of T.S. Spivet and have a question…On page 103 the author says, “The train was transporting Winnebagos! And, top-end models by the look of it.” Why would a train traveling south from Butte, MT and then east through Iowa to Chicago be hauling brand new, top-end Winnebagos when they are made in Iowa? Thanks.

  13. Stewart said:

    Nancy, I’m not sure I’m the person to be asking about such things. Having never set foot in the US I wouldn’t have noticed which way was up, regarding US geography, when reading it. That’s probably a question more for Larsen himself as I doubt anyone else could answer.

    More importantly, that quibble aside, what did you think of the book?

  14. sankeel said:

    Hey, stewart I love your writing, i have just read “the sailor who fell from grace with the sea”, can i have your opinion on what Noburu’s view towards life is?

  15. Stewart said:

    I couldn’t tell you that, sankeel, because I read the book so long ago I remember little of it, such is almost always the way.

  16. Pingback: The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Rief Larsen « Page247

  17. Nuala said:

    hi,

    I just finished the book. The section where TS is in Washington is very wobbly in regards to having a plausible plot. I had loads of questions regarding his mum and who his actual biological dad is. And what about that attack in Chicago? He seemed to be a member of the Megatherium yet he almost killed TS. I finished the book feeling disappointed and cheated!

  18. Stewart said:

    I can’t remember much of the book now, but I don’t blame you feeling disappointed and cheated, Nuala. Thanks for dropping by. Out of interest, how did you find TS as a narrator?

  19. Pingback: Link Love » Other Stories

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19 responses to Reif Larsen: The Selected Works Of T.S. Spivet

  1. Welcome back, Stewart — you have been missed and your return is most appreciated. Hope the exams went okay. And I think you have saved me money with your very first review on your return. Cheers.

  2. Stewart said:

    Thanks, Kevin. It feels good to once again sit down with a book and to read for enjoyment rather than study. I doubt a review of Essentials Of Economics would have been of much interest to readers. 🙂

    I’m curious, were you thinking of reading The Selected Works Of T.S. Spivet before reading this? It has its appeal, I think, to those willing to suspend disbelief to accommodate the voice. But for those like me, who believe the credibility of the voice is an important part in accepting the book, it just didn’t deliver.

  3. John Self said:

    Yes welcome back Stewart. As you know, I’ve had mixed feelings about this book: I love the attention to detail in the design but do fear it could be far too ‘quirky’ and ‘whimsical’ for my tastes. I admit here and now that a sort of red mist descends when I hear that the narrator’s full name is Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet. And the comparison with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is interesting, as I am one of the five people in the world who didn’t like that book.

    However I do have a copy at home and will have a look at it at some point. I don’t rule out implausibly eloquent child voices – see Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk for example – but I do rule out cutesiness without good cause, and the press reviews I’ve seen seem to indicate that there is something very like that going on here. The Daily Telegraph said that we should be thankful the works are selected and not complete. Miaow.

  4. Stewart: I was wondering about it since some people I respect seem to like it. On the other hand, negative signs include over-hyping (I seem to be getting an Amazon message a day and I hardly ever buy from Amazon), child narrators and I regard the drawings as a gimmick. So maybe your review just confirmed that I don’t want to read the book.

  5. Stewart said:

    I know what you mean about hype. What nudged me to read it was a review that assured the narrator’s preciousness wasn’t a bad thing and also references, in a roundabout way, to Calvino and Borges. (!)

    I would be interested to hear the thoughts of others, especially those who liked the book. I know I really had to push myself after a while, but reading other reviews, it seems many thought the narrator was brilliant. In this I guess it’s one of those books a publisher can hit gold with, the kind that splits opinion, and everyone has to read it to find out which side of the divide they belong on.

  6. jem said:

    Great to read a review of this one. I’m really interested in reading it. It sounds like it could be my kind of thing, but getting the quirky balance right is a tricky thing to achieve. Will report back when I’ve read it.

    Good point about those over-knowing child narrators. So many times I read and I think there’s no way that’s how a child might think.

  7. Biblibio said:

    Maybe it’s because I’m a fan of strangely formatted books, but this seems kind of interesting. Plus, the website is just strange. I mean, yes, the signs of a hype do appear around it (rarely a good sign, these days) and I get nervous when I hear about genius young narrators (mostly because the majority of authors seem to forget their own childhood the moment they try to write about someone else’s…). But the strangeness is calling. I’ll probably just wait until my library stocks it. That way I won’t have to worry about the possible bookshelf fiasco, right?

  8. steffee said:

    I haven’t read this either, but, like John Self, was going to mention Oscar, the child narrator in Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, who I believe is 9 years old and who writes in a “genius” manner.

  9. Stewart said:

    I should perhaps read the Foer. The question, really, is does Oscar, for all his ‘genius’ still read like a child? If so, success. If not, Spivet.

    Jem and Bibiblio, please do return, if you read it, and let me know how you found it.

  10. steffee said:

    Oscar does read like a child. A “genius” child, possibly an advanced-for-nine child, but a child nonetheless.

  11. Stewart said:

    I went to Waterstone’s over lunch and had a read of the first few pages of Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close. That’s how you do it. It seems like Oskar can be believed: despite being smarter than your average nine-year old, there was definitely something childish in the voice. The repetition, the showing off of details that really don’t need showing off to the reader but are ultimately true to the character (“‘…Paris, which is in France'”). I’ll no doubt stick it on the list.

  12. Nancy Baxter said:

    I just finished reading “Selected Works of T.S. Spivet and have a question…On page 103 the author says, “The train was transporting Winnebagos! And, top-end models by the look of it.” Why would a train traveling south from Butte, MT and then east through Iowa to Chicago be hauling brand new, top-end Winnebagos when they are made in Iowa? Thanks.

  13. Stewart said:

    Nancy, I’m not sure I’m the person to be asking about such things. Having never set foot in the US I wouldn’t have noticed which way was up, regarding US geography, when reading it. That’s probably a question more for Larsen himself as I doubt anyone else could answer.

    More importantly, that quibble aside, what did you think of the book?

  14. sankeel said:

    Hey, stewart I love your writing, i have just read “the sailor who fell from grace with the sea”, can i have your opinion on what Noburu’s view towards life is?

  15. Stewart said:

    I couldn’t tell you that, sankeel, because I read the book so long ago I remember little of it, such is almost always the way.

  16. Pingback: The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Rief Larsen « Page247

  17. Nuala said:

    hi,

    I just finished the book. The section where TS is in Washington is very wobbly in regards to having a plausible plot. I had loads of questions regarding his mum and who his actual biological dad is. And what about that attack in Chicago? He seemed to be a member of the Megatherium yet he almost killed TS. I finished the book feeling disappointed and cheated!

  18. Stewart said:

    I can’t remember much of the book now, but I don’t blame you feeling disappointed and cheated, Nuala. Thanks for dropping by. Out of interest, how did you find TS as a narrator?

  19. Pingback: Link Love » Other Stories

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