Thursday, October 25, 2012

Continental Divides: "The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet" by Reif Larsen

On the world of Facebook, I'm always seeing friends (or friends of friends) asking for book recommendations, and this generally leads to a dizzying, varied amount of titles thrown about, sometimes with little regard for the tastes of the person making said request. For example, just because I loved Infinite Jest doesn't mean that everyone I know will love it. I take book recommendations very seriously. If someone suggests a title to me, or if I'm loaned a book, I always take them to heart, even if my schedule forces me to put a given work on hiatus for awhile. More often than not, the people who suggest books to me know what I like, or have at least a basic notion of what would appeal to me. A couple of years ago, my friend Jamie enthusiastically recommended The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, a debut novel by writer Reif Larsen. Jamie and I had a long history of working together with books, and she's actually one of the better sources for potential material, since she and I either completely agree on books or completely disagree. This makes for great discussions, since we can either agree on something or have a tasteful debates. I finally got around to Larsen's work, and found myself with conflicting opinions about the novel's setup and execution.

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet tells the story of the title protagonist, a precocious, genius mapmaker living in Montana. He's twelve years old, the son of a reticent farmer father and a scientist mother, living with them and his sister, Gracie. His older brother Layton was killed in a shotgun mishap, leading to added stress and distance between the already conflicting personalities in the household. His own personality leads him to map and chart virtually every aspect of his life, from his father's physical whiskey-drinking tics to the amount of time it takes to shuck ears of corn. These maps, charts, and diagrams are presented on almost every page of the book (more on these later). His incredibly intellect leads to opportunities publishing maps and charts in a variety of academic publications, without any of them knowing how old he really is. His mentor, an entomologist named Dr. Yorn, has encouraged T.S. to submit his drawings to the publications, which leads to the young man being selected for a science award, presented by the Smithsonian. After weighing his options. T.S. decides to keep the news from his family, and hitches a ride on a freight train heading east, in order to get to Washington D.C. in time for the presentation.

This plot setup allows for Larsen to explore a multitude of themes--family, identity, and personal/physical journeys. T.S. is supremely gifted, possibly afflicted with a mild form of Asperger's syndrome (hinted at early in the book), but for the most part, a child, coming to terms with his intellect and still-developing social skills. Some of Larsen's passages hint to this, balancing T.S.'s observations with continual actions that show his age. For example:

"A year ago, Dr. Yorn had submitted my first illustration to the Smithsonian under the guise that I was a full colleague of his, and the bad feeling that I got from the lying part of this statement was outweighed by the secret hope that perhaps I was a full colleague of Dr. Yorn's, at least in spirit. And then when this first illustration--a bumblebee cannibalistically devouring another bumblebee--had been accepted, and published no less, Dr. Yorn and I had celebrated, somewhat surreptitiously, because my mother still did not know any of this had transpired. Dr. Yorn had driven down from Bozeman, crossed over the continental divide twice (once west to Butte and then again south to Divide), picked me up at the Coppertop, and taken me out for ice cream at O'Neil's in Historic Downtown Butte (Larsen 23)(latter italics mine)."

There are many enjoyable, even near-brilliant passages throughout the novel. The observations made by T.S. are carefully balanced between intelligent and childlike, revealing some curious philosophies and assessments of thought processes and the way we view the world. While packing for his journey, T.S. inexplicably steals one of his mother's notebooks, which turns out to contain a fictionalized biography of her husband's great-grandmother, who was a budding geologist in the nineteenth century. T.S. occasionally assumes that, because of his mother's position as a scientist, that the woman was from his mother's side, not his father's. His exploration of this mistake is a good example of how his narration juggles the two sides of his mentality.

"Why do we make these illogical associations in our mind? No one ever said, 'Emma Osterville is Dr. Clair's [his mother] great-grandmother,' but I had come to vaguely believe it, simply through frequent association. I suppose children are particularly susceptible to such irrational connections: with so much unknown, they are less concerned with the sticky details than with trying to create a working map of the world (Larsen 143)."

T.S.'s journey on the train is the most memorable part of the work, and its elements of realism and fantasy blend quite well, whereas the actions and events following the train ride are much too forced and unbelievable. The freight car he chooses in Montana happens to contain an open Winnebago, giving him cover for some near-discoveries and highlighting two examples of Great American Travel. From his small town in Montana to the end of the line in Chicago to the final destination of Washington, D.C., T.S. finds himself in three different representations of the American experience. Being able to sleep in the Winnebago allows T.S. to make quite a few hypotheses about perception, physics, and movements in various forms:

"My body had grown so used to traveling in reverse that whenever we stopped, I found that my whole field of vision swam at me. I had first noticed this when I was hiding in the bathroom of the Cowboy Condo during one of our numerous station stops. I had become increasingly convinced that the railroad knew my exact location and it was only a matter of time before they sent one of their bulls to come and kill me. As I sat on the toilet in the confines of the tiny bathroom, I suddenly was overcome with the sensation of running into the wall in front of me. It was nauseating to find that your reflection in the bathroom mirror was moving toward you when you were in fact standing still, as thought it had managed to break free from the normal laws of refraction and optics. Gradually, through the steady influence of backward motion vectors, my confidence was taking a beating.

And so where did I find solace from this herky-jerky quagmire of momentum?

I knew there was a reason I had packed my studies of Sir. Isaac Newton. I searched through my suitcase and grasped the notebook as one grasped an old childhood teddy bear in times of distress (Larsen 172-173)."

T.S. ends up forming a new relationship with himself, so to speak, hence the long, lonely journey. His interactions and relationships with others are both fascinating and illogical. There are touching moments when he tries to bond with his father, a man who no doubt loves him but has trouble expressing his feelings, especially since the death of his older son, with whom he felt closer and shared more common interests. T.S.'s sister, Gracie, is a typical teenager, prone to outbursts, drama, and loud music. He loves her, but views her as a specimen, as if he's doing field studies of the American Teenager. His chance encounters, however, are sometimes ludicrous. He has a run-in with a wild eyed preacher in Chicago, which I took to be a sly commentary on the battle between reason and religion. Upon arriving in D.C. (his getting there involves yet another chance encounter), his contact at the Smithsonian, after being taken aback by his age, sees T.S. as marketing gold, since media outlets would jump on the idea of a young award winning mapmaker, therefore increasing exposure and income for the museum. T.S. is initiated into a secret society, a group mindful of his life in Montana and supposed secrets. These happenings seem to come very, very rapidly, a far cry from the deliberately careful pacing of the previous two-thirds of the novel. Larsen had obviously outlined his work very carefully, but decides to throw far too many wild events at the reader once T.S. arrives in Chicago. The idea of a young child stowing away on a cross-country trip by himself was set up perfectly, allowing the reader to escape into this fantasy world with no questions. But as quickly as Larsen gains trust, he loses it by adding far too many diversions at the end.

The maps, images, and notes that accompany T.S.'s narration work well as interactive footnotes. He's a compulsive note-taker, and Larsen illustrates these with stunning detail, making the novel a marvel to consume, both textually and visually. But much like the novel's ending, T.S.'s compulsion becomes, well, tiresome. I genuinely feel bad for this critique, since I'm not at all complaining about the beauty of the illustrations. A late illustration of the Smithsonian is essential, especially combined with T.S.'s first impression of the building:

But there are constant illustrations of random thoughts, as evidenced below. Humorous, yes, but for as painstaking as the work is, constantly taking in picture after picture of T.S.'s observations and hypotheses becomes tiresome. Yes, the young narrator's mentality is far different than yours or mine, with notebooks full of these works and jottings. I just feel Larsen could have achieved the same visual and atmospheric effect with more carefully selected images. Humorous, yes, but being constantly bombarded detracts from what is otherwise a strong story.

And for all of my critiques, I'm genuinely interested in Larsen's future projects. For a debut novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is audacious in very good ways. The themes are varied, giving the reader a wealth of material to consider and imagine while for the most part being rooted in writing that feels classic and original at the same time. It just goes on far too many unbelievable paths and leaves far too many questions unanswered for me to praise it fully. With some careful editing, this could have been a masterpiece and one of the best debut novels of the early part of this century. As Larsen grows as an artist and storyteller, I have a great feeling he'll have marvelous creative advancements. Finding a balance between realism and strains of fantasy is difficult, and I was sad to see the work unfurl so rapidly. I can only imagine the time and energy that Larsen put into this book, and again, it's staggering to realize it's his debut. But in that fascination, we can see early struggles. Had the novel maintained a consistent tone and a consistent grounding in the created reality, I feel it would still be receiving positive attention in these years following its publication. I came out of this with full admiration for Larsen's skills, and I'm hoping his future works can capture or even outdo this first ambition. There were so many directions he could have taken for the better, and I'm left feeling very divided, wondering how much better this journey could have been.

Work Cited:
Larsen, Reif. The Selected Works Of T.S. Spivet. Copyright 2009 by Reif Larsen.

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