The Boy Genius

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.

13 thoughts on “The Boy Genius

  1. Emmas’s story on its own was interesting, but yeah, I was left wondering what the point of it was. And the secret society was rather odd. I’m not sure what it was all about and what the point of their politcal action was. It felt like they were using T.S. as much as Jibsen and the Smithsonian were using him but somehow that was supposed to be okay.

    • Stefanie, well you make a very good point there. The only difference between the club and the Smithsonian was that the club renounced his involvement honorably…. and that’s sort of a bit meh and not really the point. I thought lots of this book was interesting and witty and cool, and was still uncertain what the point was… But it was fun while it lasted!🙂

  2. “great big literary ocean of interestingness” – this phrase grabbed me, Litlove. It puts words to something I’ve been thinking about incoherently, and the image of hooking one book out of it and subjecting it to pressure makes so much sense. And is so vivid. I just picture the book being hooked out and cooked. And that what? Much better to dive into the ocean with a snorkel or oxygen tank and immerse oneself in the gorgeous diversity of it all.

    • Lilian – I am completely behind that metaphor! I always feel that the pressure on books to win prizes or big advances or be bestsellers is so misdirected when we consider what readers actually do. Either we love variety, and so need lots of different books to achieve that, or we like to read within quite a limited area, and that makes for a highly subjective understanding of what’s good and what isn’t. Well, in any case the whole business is so subjective. Much better just to leap into that ocean and swim.

  3. I’ve been waiting to see what you thought-I’m glad you liked T.S.’s narrative voice, with the title, I thought you might have seen too much of it. I have to agree about the plot, it is oddball and not in a good way.

  4. It’s unfortunate that this book didn’t live up to its initial promise. You might be right about the publisher only seeing the first half of the book. I hate when a book that has drawn me in suddenly goes off course but it sounds like all in all you had a good experience and were happy you stuck it out.

    • Kathleen, I am happy to have read it. Sure there were bits that didn’t work so well for me, but there was a lot I did enjoy. That’s the great thing with books. You hardly ever lose out by reading one – there’s pretty much always something worthwhile in the experience!

  5. Good point about Emma’s story being added in to fill time for the reader while T.S. travels. Thinking of it as a fill in I like it a lot less sadly, but it is a lovely story that made me turn the pages much faster.

    I’m still struggling with that ending, when his father arrives to take him home and his mother refuses to come to see him. His father overcomes his emotionless state and I guess redeems himself as a parent in the reader’s eye, but his mother (who I think is shown to be much more loving, if still rather distracted) doesn’t get the same kind of redemption. I found myself liking her very much when she wrote that note about ‘T.S to illustrate’, enough even to overcome the weird feelings that her involvement in the whole T.S. vs the Smithsonian plot. But when she didn’t come along with her husband, I felt almost angry at her, then sad when T.S’s father said she thought she wasn’t a very good mother. I would like to know so much more about her, as well as the ending to Emma’s story, but I do wonder if being given the chance to fill in the blanks myself isn’t just as good as being given one finalised ending in the text…Not sure.

    • Jodie – it was a lovely story, I agree, and oh how I wished he’d had the courage to take it a little further (the author, that is). Yes, it is indeed the ending which is the real sticking point of this novel. I felt exactly the way you did – the father gets the glory and the mother is obliged to shrink into the background with something of a cloud over her head. It would have been much better if the mother and father had united over TS’s disappearance – but would that have been too sentimental? Well, I wouldn’t have minded. I like blanks when they are hedged in with distinct signifying possibilities. There were one or two blanks in this narrative that just seemed like empty spaces. But hey, there was a lot to like, too.

  6. I liked the idea of this book and in many ways it does sound like fun, but I wonder if I would have given up in the middle had I tried to read it. It’s not a good thing when a story changes directions like that midway through the novel–it throws the reader out of whack. I’ve not done too well with the Slaves of late–maybe next time around will be better.

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