When publishers fall over themselves for a book by a Columbia writing school graduate, eventually paying almost $1 million for it, the result is entirely counterproductive. Any reader is going to look at the hype, look at the price tag, look at the book and say: Is this really worth it? After all, which great experimental classic would you pay a million bucks to keep in print? Proust’s In Search of Lost Time? Joyce’s Ulysses? Samuel Johnson’s dictionary? A Clockwork Orange? See, books work best as a great big literary ocean of interestingness, and if you hook one out and subject it to intense pressure to perform, it invariably comes out badly. The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, by Reif Larsen is the book with the golden price ticket, and it is a curious hybrid indeed, comprising great charm and whimsy and inventiveness and also socking great flaws.
T.S. Spivet is one of the staples of literary fiction, a misunderstood boy genius whose quirky first-person narrative offers us a delightfully precocious and distinctive perspective on the world. T. S. lives in Montana in the requisite dysfunctional family. His father is an impassive farmer fostering an obsession for cowboys and a deep-rooted nostalgia for the Old West. He’s like the Marlboro man reincarnated; strong, silent and emotionally constipated. His mother is equally loveless, only she is an entomologist on a quest for a beetle that probably doesn’t exist. His older sister, Gracie is a pessimistic and petulant teenager, and his younger brother, Layton has recently died in a shooting incident, for which T. S. feels at least partly responsible.
The tragedy has magnified the cracks in T.S.’s already odd family and thrust him back on his singular way of dealing with the world. For T.S. is an obsessive cartographer and illustrator, moderating the messy unruliness of existence by mapping it out. He is not interested solely in the contours of the land, in fact far from it; his maps are often about intangible or unexpected things, people’s facial expressions, the flight path of bats, Gracie’s method of shucking corn, the rise of MacDonald’s. He has a mentor, a Dr Yorn, who (mostly) unbeknownst to T.S has been sending his drawings and diagrams out for prizes. The novel opens with T. S. receiving a phone call from the Smithsonian Institute to say he has won the prestigious Baird Award for the advancement of popular science, and will he come to Washington to collect it?
The best thing about this book is the voice of T. S. Spivet, which, even if implausible for a twelve-year-old boy, even a very smart one, is funny, engaging and endearing. The book is oversized and its wide margins are full of his drawings, along with sometimes lengthy notes in the margin that must be followed from the main text by means of dotted lines and arrows. It’s like a Boy’s Own annual and a technical drawing textbook have mated and the result is, like T. S. himself, whimsical and lively and more than a little exhausting. Having decided to take the Smithsonian up on its offer, T. S. then has a proper map to follow, as he steals away at dawn and embarks on a cross-country journey, hitching an illegal lift on a freight train headed to Chicago.
Having put his main character in a conveniently located Winnebago for several days’ worth of travelling across central America, Larsen backs himself into a narrative corner. T. S.’s voice is charming, but a 100-hour eventless stretch of it would tax the most dedicated reader. So, hey presto, T. S. recalls he has packed one of his mother’s notebooks in his suitcase and it turns out to be a narrative fiction she seems to have written about his great-grandmother. This could have been a clever idea, and the new voice is again beautifully conjured up; but the story stops just at the point at which it could have become interesting and significant. A point T. S. himself makes, which doesn’t actually compensate for Larsen pulling his punches. But anyhow, T. S. now arrives in Chicago and it suddenly becomes clear that something has happened en route: the narrative has decided it no longer wishes to be a cutesy bildungsroman, but turns into an oddball steampunky adventure with wormholes and bloodshed and secret societies and mad schemes about the President. Having had very little happen for the first 200 pages, it’s like the plot goes beserk in an act of overcompensation. Hmmm. My guess is that Larsen sold this novel when he had only the first half of it written.
So, what to make of it all? It’s always fun to see writers pushing the boundaries and trying new things. And my greatest fear when embarking on this novel, that the narrative voice would drag, was completely unfounded. There’s a lot to enjoy here before the plot implodes, or even while it’s imploding, because Larsen can certainly write. But here’s the thing with experimental fiction: when it works, it opens up new dimensions of experience to the reader, allowing us to think about reality in more profound and sophisticated ways. T. S.’s maps and drawings are fun, but in the end the consequence of them, their importance for understanding the situation T. S. finds himself in, are minimal. The marginalia becomes just a device, or as I experienced it, a foreshadowing of hypertext links in the ebook, that will take you out of the immersive experience of reading sometimes, irritatingly, for no good reason. But to be fair, I never even liked footnotes in academic books. I’m really glad I read this, and I think Larsen is a talented writer, but the next book he publishes will come, I hope, from a more coherent map in his imagination.