“Do you ever get the feeling like you already know the entire contents of the universe somewhere inside of your head, as if you were born with a complete map of this world already grafted onto the folds of your cerebellum and you are just spending your entire life figuring out how to access this map?”
It seems that too often we label intelligent children “precocious” when we are really just frightened by the fact that they are smarter than we are. In fiction, child narrators often get a bad rep because their narrative voice seems too adult, too intelligent for someone so young, not allowing us to accept that they would think or speak in such an unchildlike manner. First person narration with a child character is notoriously difficult to succeed with, because of our very adult, preconceived notions about how we think at young ages. The quote above is from the 12-year old narrator of Reif Larsen’s debut novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. At a second glance, it is a rather childlike perception of the world – and that’s where the magic lies within this astounding novel.
Twelve year old genius cartographer, Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet lives on a ranch in Montana with his family – to his young eyes, his mother is a floundering entomologist and his father is an unloving, gritty rancher. Ever since his younger brother died tragically the summer before, T.S. feels as if his parents do not care whether he’s present or not, and he retreats into the mapping of his world. Larsen delivers this revelation concerning T.S.’s family quite subtly – his mother casually ignores him, being engrossed in her research, and his father is a rancher, while T.S. is a scientist – there’s not much common ground there. There is no heavy hand here, no “mommy and daddy don’t love me” moment, but rather a palpable distancing that T.S. experiences, resulting in his creation of an alternate sense of reality. He spends every waking hour mapping the world around him. Not maps in the traditional cartographic sense, but rather he creates elaborate diagrams and illustrations of every object, experience, and thought that he deems important enough to put down on paper. An elaborate diagram of a “Freight Train as a Sound Sandwich”, the history of 20th century, mapped according to 12-year old boys eating Honey Nut Cheerios, the structure of the Bailey train yards in Nebraska. The scientific drawings he does for a professor friend at Montana State are so accurate and so beautifully rendered, that the professor sends them off to “the attic of our nation”, the Smithsonian in Washington, without T.S.’s knowledge. When the museum awards T.S. the distinguished Baird fellowship, without knowing that he is only in junior high, T.S. debates whether to accept his new life or to continue in anonymity on the ranch. In light of his parental ignorance, he decides to slip off under cover of darkness, hop a freight train, and make his way across the country, on his own, to accept his award in D.C.
On the road – as this is essentially a “road novel” – T.S., of course, gradually learns more about the family he left behind once out of their orbit, and realizes how important that truly is when faced with the world at large. Just before leaving, he steals one of his mother’s scientific journals from her study – “…but I wanted a piece of her to bring with me! Yes, I do not deny it: children are selfish little creatures.” But after opening the journal, he learns that it is not scientific in nature, but rather a fictionalized account, written by his mother, of the life of his great-great grandmother, Emma, a pioneering 19th-century geologist. Oh, the importance of family – more important that scientific data journals! It comes as a shock to T.S. that his mother has been spending more time on Emma than on the search for the tiger monk beetle in the prairies of Montana.
“Okay”, you say, “I get it. Little smart boy runs away for greener intellectual pastures only to realize that what he is leaving behind is better than he thought.” Sounds like a fairly standard child narrator book. The difference is in Reif Larsen’s delivery system for this tale, which is quite unlike anything I have ever read. As T.S. is a cartographer – a very visually oriented young man – his maps need to be included in his story in order for that story to be fully told or understood. So, intermixed with T.S.’s narrative are diagrammatical footnotes in the margins as a sort of illustration of whatever T.S. sees or thinks about. When confronted by a bible-thumping hobo, T.S. illustrates the man’s terrifying features under the journal heading, “Fear is the Sum of Many Sensory Details“. He has never seen a car with spinning rims before – “The Car With Black Windows That Drove Backwards While Traveling Forwards“. The added element of these illustrations creates an entirely different book – one that transcends mere novel and becomes a visual, physical mapping of a story. A novel as art, if you will – in a more literal sense. T.S.’s humor, naivete, and intelligence become remarkably magnified through his maps. Everything he experiences becomes heightened and the writing takes on a more evocative air when coupled with these remarkable additions. How could there possibly be another novel this year that is more of a complete package than this? I was left stunned by it’s brilliance and humbled by Larsen’s talent.
As a reader, I relish those books that challenge my perceptions of what a novel is meant to be. We think that there are rules for narration – and there are, don’t get me wrong – but these rules, in the hands of talented, imaginative authors, can be bent in order to create something truly original and groundbreaking. Jorge Luis Borges (Labyrinths), Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio), and David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas). As of this writing, I am mired in Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler – these are all novels which bend the rules of fiction to the point of breaking, only to allow the narration to snap back to relative conformity. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet certainly falls within their ranks quite easily, if for slightly different reasons. Spivet is firmly linear, unlike Mitchell and Calvino, but it’s labyrinthine structure lies within the play between the text and the illustrations, re-training the reader’s brain to comprehend both without missing a beat. To force a reader to alter the way that they read is not something to be taken lightly – only in the hands of an author operating on another plain of existence could this be achieved. It has a frighteningly brilliant flow to it, fully immersing the reader within T.S.’s world. Once he reaches his destination and begins to ache for home, so too do you ache for him to feel that warm parental embrace. It is a difficult thing for an author to convey emotive qualities in his/her characters to a point where we actually believe what we say about them once we’re disengaged from the page. We throw around these ideas of feelings and emotions, but how often are we really, truly emotionally invested in a fictional character’s well-being? Not often enough, I say. There is a decidedly easy, contemporary feel to Larsen’s writing, which some may feel diverts it away from the nearly impenetrable Borges and Calvino, but this is so meticulously crafted and so different than anything else I’ve ever read, that it should stand the test of time. Something that every author strives for, but so few achieve.
So where do we go from here?