[2 June 2009]
Let’s get the background buzz out of the way: Reif Larsen is 29-years-old, lives in Brooklyn and has an MFA from Columbia University. He has written an ambitious and smart first novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet featuring minutely drawn maps, annotations and illustrations. It was bought at auction for a bit less than a million dollars, following a frenzy that had 10 publishers vying for the manuscript; international rights were sold in 22 countries. Not bad for a first-time author.
The publishing world is forever looking to anoint a new young star—the next Zadie Smith or Jonathan Safran Foer—and Larsen seems a likely candidate. But get past the hype, and the basic question remains: Is it a good book? The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is a very good book—too good, in fact, to be dismissed as gimmicky or pretentious.
It is not without its flaws, but its virtues are impressive. (And in aesthetic terms, the oversize 8-by-9 1/2-inch book is a beautiful object.)
T.S. Spivet—his initials stand for “Tecumseh Sparrow”, which is fully explained—is a rather peculiar 12-year-old boy, narrating in his inimitably charming voice. He lives with his family on a ranch in Montana, where he spends his days immersed in cartography. No topic is too esoteric for his intricate maps and diagrams, displayed in the book’s margins. (They were created by the author and Ben Gibson, who designed the book’s quirky typography.)
To call T.S. obsessive would be an understatement. He fussily charts, among other things, his father’s whiskey-drinking habit, birthplaces of the world’s major religions, and the stages of male pattern baldness. He has a clandestine career, publishing his drawings in exhibitions and science magazines. No one knows he’s just a talented kid.
But unlike, say, a character in a Wes Anderson film, T.S.’ eccentricity doesn’t seem tacked on for its own sake. A deep sense of loss and loneliness drives the boy’s compulsive behavior—namely, the death of his 10-year-old brother, Layton. (Since Layton’s death, T.S. hides his name in the borders of every map he draws.)
Then there’s his teenage sister, Gracie; his taciturn, disapproving cowboy father; and his preoccupied mother, Dr. Clair Linneaker Spivet, whom T.S. calls “Dr. Clair” rather than “mom” A coleopterist obsessed with a rare beetle, Dr. Clair is, her son explains, “the kind of mother wh/o would teach you the periodic table while feeding you porridge as an infant, but not the type, in this age of global terrorism and child kidnappers, to ask who might be calling her children on the telephone.”
T.S. has just two friends, and one of them, his mentor, Dr. Terence Yorn, an entomology professor, secretly submits a portfolio of T.S.’ scientific drawings to the Smithsonian. One day T.S. receives a call informing him that the submission has won a prestigious prize.
When he’s invited to Washington to deliver an acceptance speech and begin his yearlong residency, T.S. lies about his age and level of education (seventh grade) and decides to “hobo it” east. He hops a freight train, hitchhikes, encounters great danger and subsists mostly on McDonald’s and beef jerky.
His journey is not only geographical but one of tremendous personal revelation. T.S. discovers a private journal of his mother’s inside his suitcase, and as the text unfolds, he gains a richer understanding of his family—namely, that they are in severe denial about Layton’s death and that he should no longer blame himself.
There’s something very poignant about how T.S. slips his insights into the marginalia, as if exposing vulnerability directly would be too intimate or unsettling. He is only a child, after all.
This is a book to be read slowly, savored for its digressions and offbeat characters. It’s true that the naive-male-prodigy-on-a-mission is familiar (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time comes to mind), and that whimsy and charm can often seem forced and cloying.
But that isn’t the case here. For T.S., mapping is “not an act of forgery but of translation and transcendence.” He documents everything and everyone in order to have a sense of purpose and to beat back profound loneliness.
Only at the end does Larsen lose control of the already outlandish plot, but that’s to be forgiven (he doesn’t pretend to be a realist.) His debut is oddly affecting, and T.S. Spivet is a character to root for.