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The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

by Reif Larsen

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating


The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

© Penguin

Penguin, May 2009

Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet is a 12-year-old cartographer living on the Coppertop Ranch just 4.73 miles North of the tiny town of Divide, Montana. He shares "Tecumseh" with four previous generations of male Spivets, and his middle name is honor of the bird that met its demise against the Spivet kitchen window at the exact moment of the boy's birth. T.S. keeps the skeletal remains of that sparrow on his drafting table, in a bedroom flanked by shelves crammed with the notebooks in which he maps his world. This is no ordinary Montana ranch boy.

T.S.'s mother, Dr. Clair Linneaker Spivet (who T.S. refers to as "Dr. Clair" rather than "Mom"), is a coleopterist, a beetle scientist who has spent her career analyzing and classifying beetles; she keeps a photograph of Carolus Linnaeus, the creator of the modern taxonomic classification system, over the fireplace, despite her husband's protestations. T.S. describes his father, Tecumseh Elijah, as "a quiet and brooding broncbuster... the type of man who was born perhaps one hundred years too late." And there is another son - Layton - who died earlier in the year in a gunshot accident while performing seismographic experiments with T.S. No one speaks of Layton on the Coppertop Ranch, and T.S., who bears a crushing guilt over his brother's death, hides Layton's name in every one of the maps he creates.
T.S. maps everything. He maps everyday occurrences, like the actions his sister makes as she shucks the corn, his father's facial expressions, and the menu of the Smithsonian Institution's automated telephone system; but he illustrates much larger data as well, such as the decline of Indian nations on the High Plains over the past two centuries, and the layout of leaf cutter ant colonies. It is illustrations such as these that get our hero noticed by the Smithsonian Institution, "the nation's attic," and result in a request from that most hallowed of halls that he accept the distinguished Baird award and fellowship at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. So it is that 12-year-old T.S. Spivet sets off on a train-hopping, cross-country adventure of Kerouacian proportions to meet his destiny.

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is beautiful book at an oversized 8 x 9.5 inches with the youthful cartographer's maps, illustrations, and digressive annotations pouring forth from the margins. It is Reif Larsen's first novel and has been the subject of some attention based upon a publisher bidding war that resulted in close to a $1 million purchase. T.S. is a sympathetic protagonist. Moved along by his obsessive need to document life, he lays bare a rich internal life in marginalia that attempts to get at the root of complex ideas such as predestiny, quantum mechanics and the inherent divergence of a map from the reality it attempts to illustrate.
That is not to say that The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is without its faults. Larsen greatly simplifies our hero's cross-country journey by conveniently supplying a Winnebago being transported Eastward on a freight train, as well as an amicable, if racist, truck driver to get his protagonist from point A to point B, some 2,000 miles away. One might argue that the journey is internal rather than external, as along the way T.S. loses himself while reading a family history concerning his great great grandmother, also a scientist. But while the mini-narrative of her story is interesting, it remains somewhat detached from the rest of the novel, as though it were tacked on as an afterthought.

Also, the reader can't escape the nagging sensation that no twelve-year-old on the face of the planet thinks, speaks, or writes like this:
"I suppose even these torqued moments of import could disappear if they happened to occur next to the black holes of our lives. And yet the synaptic composition of memory was such that it could weather the pull of the black hole and reappear months later..."

For all the wit and wealth of ideas, for all the family backstory and rich emotional life of the main character, what unfolds when T.S. finally lands in Washington, D.C. - underground tunnels, secret societies, and a ridiculously well-timed arrival of the proverbial cavalry to save the day - make the final third of the novel somewhat of a disappointment. With any luck, however, T.S. has already gotten into your head by that point, and you'll find yourself, as I did, still reveling in his marginalia.
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