2. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen
The full Catapult review. I feel sort of bad dropping this book down to number 2 on the Catapult Notable list – we can call it more of a #1b, I guess. Larsen has done the impossible in this modern age – he has broken new ground in the realm of the novel. Big words, I know, but his use of maps, diagrams, and illustrations in this debut novel guides the reader through the labyrinth in a way that has never been done before – at least in such a cohesive, readable narrative structure. This simple story of a little boy who runs away from home, thinking no one loves him, who discovers along the way that the exact opposite is true, would NEVER have appealed to a cynical bastard such as myself, if not for the manner in which the story was imparted.
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. 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.
I loved that the style here made me slow down and enjoy the read for what it was – a novel as a work of art. It has a leisurely pace to it that is a respite from the pace of our modern world – retraining my eye and brain to follow the arrows to the next diagram from T.S.’s notebook had a calming effect on me that allowed me to just be swept along in the flow of the narrative. Wonderful stuff. While compiling this list, I’ve been engaged in a friendly discussion with authors Olen Steinhauer and Kevin Wignall over at Contemporary Nomad about the benefits and drawbacks to e-books vs bound books. Kevin had a great line about creating more books that are beautiful in their own right that made me think specifically about T.S. Spivet: “if you read a great but cheaply produced book you’ll give it to your friend, but if you read a great and beautifully produced book, you’ll put it on your shelf and recommend it to your friend, even if you know you’ll never read it again.”