Book: The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larssen

Charming novel about a boy obsessed with maps traveling across America

Reif Larssen
The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet
Penguin, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-59420-217-9
374 pages

The title character in The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet is a twelve-year-old boy who lives with his parents and sister on a ranch outside Butte, Montana. His father is a rancher and his mother is an entomologist, engaged in a seemingly quixotic search for a specific beetle that has not previously been identified. T. S. (the initials stand for Tecumseh Sparrow) has something of an obsession with creating maps and diagrams (which are really the same thing as far as he's concerned) and he's quite good at it. T. S.'s friend and mentor, Dr Terry Yorn of Montana State University, has arranged for some of T. S.'s works to be published and T. S. has received some commissions. Without T. S.'s knowledge, Dr Yorn has submitted a portfolio of his work for a prize given by the Smithsonian Institution, which includes a year's fellowship there. Dr Yorn didn't mention in the submission that T. S. is twelve. T. S. is understandably a bit confused when the gets the telephone call telling him that he has won. He eventually decides to accept the award but he doesn't want to involve his family in it so he decides to travel to Washington by riding a freight train.

So, you won't be surprised to be told that the book is a bildungsroman. And it's a rather clever and charming one, at that. For one, the book's margins are full of the inventive and detailed maps and diagrams that T. S. makes. For another, T. S. takes with him on his journey one of his mother's notebooks. It turns out to contain, not notes on beetle investigations, but rather semi-imagined biographical notes about her husband's great-grandmother, another scientist, who came to Montana from Boston. So, in addition to T. S.'s journey that we see in two ways, we also have a somewhat different journey in a different era and in the other direction that we and T. S. are learning about at the same time. The two journeys and the graphical commentary play off against one another quite well.

In addition, when T. S. finally arrives in Washington, the administrators of the Smithsonian decide not to embarrass themselves and so claim to everyone that they knew all along that T. S. was twelve years old. Unsurprisingly, he becomes a public-relations darling. But we find that public relations is a sort of anti-map, not depicting the world as it is, but rather as someone would like you to think it is.

T. S.'s character is engaging, the maps are entertaining, and the mechanisms that the novel uses are clever but not obtrusive. I found the book a charming read.

That said, the book is not without flaws. One is that the time that the book is set in is a little odd. It seems to be quite contemporary (T. S.'s sister has an iPod). But no one makes any mention of computers or the internet. It's perfectly possible to imagine that T. S. prefers to work with traditional tools and in traditional media. And southwestern Montana is quite remote. Still, it's a bit odd that nobody so much as sends an email in the course of the book. And T. S. finds it natural to use as a metaphor "a record player left to skip endlessly" (p. 199).

Another thing that bothered me slightly is that to my (occasionally obsessive) mind, some of the things that T. S. says don't ring quite true. Take the book's title, for example. If you make a selection of someone's works, that implies that a different selection could be made by someone else. So you shouldn't call something "The Selected Works" because that implies that there can be only one. For another example, T. S. speaks of shelves "groaning under the weight of the notebooks" (p. 153, margin). That's a hackneyed and un-illuminating metaphor that no one concerned with accuracy would use.

But those are minor complaints about a novel that is both charming and interesting.

Posted: Sat - April 3, 2010 at 07:59 PM   Main   Category: