Friday, February 25, 2011

Review of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

On many trips to the book store I have picked up and examined Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, only to put it down again.  The diagrams and pictures on the pages I leafed through were certainly appealing.  The premise about a twelve year old cartography prodigy hopping a train cross country to the Smithsonian to receive the prestigious Baird award was original, but would the story be compelling and were those illustrations in the margins merely a gimmick to get me to buy a mediocre book?
            As it turns out, I didn’t buy the book, but I did borrow it from the library.  I guess I’m like my kids – a sucker for pretty pictures.  What I discovered was that the charts, maps, and diagrams were oh so much more than illustrations of the text.  These wonderful tidbits in the margins enriched the book, serving as a means to develop characters, drop in back story, explain historical and scientific references, highlight symbolism, and overall make me fall in love with quirky, young T.S.
          Some people may find the “marginal tidbits” distracting, but Larsen provides arrows to show readers when to stop reading the text and refer to the illustrations and notes.  Because of these helpful references, the marginals don’t interfere with the flow of the main story.  I think people nowadays have evolved an Internet mentality, and most readers can cope with this constant linking and drilling down deeper into the story.  It sort of reminds me of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, where he included definitions of his terms in the margins, or Susanna Clarke’s fictional footnotes in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.  This "sidebar method" is a clever way for authors to fit in the kitchen sink of ideas swirling around their heads, eliminating the need for them to edit out their dearest turns of phrase that don’t fit neatly into the story arc.  I like this trend, but I think it takes a skilled author to pull it off.
            And Reif Larsen proves himself to be such a skilled author.  One gets the sense that Larsen lovingly crafted every sentence, giving T.S. his unique voice.  Some reviewers have found it difficult to believe that a twelve year old could think and speak as T. S. does, but I found he had both playfulness and vulnerability to balance out his flashes of insightful genius.  In one instant, T.S. is sketching a map of North American twelve year olds pinching Honey Nut Cheerios at the same moment in time, and the next, he is philosophically pondering the truth and utility of cartography.  I would argue that those who find T.S.’s voice unconvincing have never had the pleasure of their own children cracking off helpful life advice like the sagest of zen monks.  My kids surprise me like this all the time, albeit inadvertently. 
            Although T.S.’s thoughts and trials were often amusing and sometimes fantastically absurd, the overall story really got me in the gut.  T.S. must cope with the death of his brother Layton and the guilt he feels as a result.  He is also dealing with his father’s disappointment that he isn’t a tough-as-nails cowboy and his mother’s benign neglect of both the family and her career.  Only T.S.’s malcontent sister Gracie ever seems to acknowledge him, but she is wrapped up in her own teen angst and takes “Dork Retreats” to be free of him. 
            The highlight of the book is T.S.’s observations and descriptions of his father, T.E. Spivet.  T.E. is a hardened Montana rancher who is strangely paired up with Dr. Clair, T.S.’s entomologist mother.  T.E. is a tougher cowpoke than Curly “I-crap-biggerin’-you” Washburn from the movie City Slickers.  No matter what T.S. does to try to relate to his father, he can’t seem to please him.  T.S. recalls a time when Dr. Yorn, one of his mother’s male scientist friends, shows him how to use the university electron microscope.  Yorn and T.S. high-five in delight when they focus on a dust mite.  T.S. laments:
Can you imagine Father high-fiving me over a dust mite?  Can you imagine Father high-fiving at all?  No.  He would shoulder-punch you, or once, after Layton had felled a coyote at a great distance with his Winchester, Father was so happy that he took off his hat and slapped it on Layton’s head…This spontaneous transfer of Stetson from father to son was a beautiful thing to witness, even if a similar transfer would never come my way.
            Whew!  Pretty poignant stuff, and that was just one of the marginal tidbits (so don’t even think about skipping over any of them).  I suppose this book really appealed to me because I saw T.S. as a kindred spirit.  I was that nerdy kid who read encyclopedias for fun and dreamed of rifling through specimen drawers at the Smithsonian (a dream I actually fulfilled, but that is another story).  Even if none of the characters “got” T.S., this reader certainly did.   The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is a new favorite, and  although I’ve read it, I’m buying a copy of my very own for the sheer re-reading pleasure of it– and that is the highest recommendation I can offer a book.

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