A whole lot of exasperation for The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen

Cartography is useless. When you drew a map of something, this something then became true, at least in the world of the map. But wasn’t the world of the map never the same as the world of the world? So no map-truths were ever truth-truths. I was in a dead-end profession. I think I knew I was in a dead-end profession, and the dead-endedness was what made it so attractive. In my heart of hearts, there was a certain comfort in knowing that I was doomed to failure.

This really could’ve been the best book ever. A delicious mix of novel [with precocious prodigy Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet at its center] and all-around yummy art, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen is fun and tender and smacks of the author’s talent. It’s one of the most affective integrations of narrative and visual aids I’ve ever read. The problem is, although I have no complaint whatsoever regarding the art in these pages, the narrative is simply lacking.

Shorthand: This book’s promise had the Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close [which I loved] vibe, but had the eww-conclusion of Special Topics in Calamity Physics [which I loathed]. That is, this novel could have been in the same league as the former but its narrative just threw its hands up and muttered, Ah, fuck it! and settled for the latter. Augh, dammit. You could have been perfect. Perfect, ya hear?

Basically, the novel is a peek into T.S.’s life, and the numerous illustrations [the maps] and the marginalia and footnotes scattered along the pages also lend to the storytelling. See, T.S. makes maps. Of everything. He makes a map of his sister shucking corn, he makes a map of his notebooks, he makes a map of loneliness. It’s fascinating being in this 12-year-old’s mind, as he moves through life, as he creates, as he seeks to express himself through those creations.

. . . there was never a map that got it all right, and truth and beauty were never married to one another for long.

[See, below, the first page of the novel, as well as a map later on in the book that T.S. calls “The Map of Accompaniment; or, Loneliness in Transit.”]

Among his work are fine scientific illustrations [see that bird on the bottom right of the first picture?], and these are what the Smithsonian awards him a grant for. Because of some family stickiness — I love the Spivets, though, I do — he runs away, lives a life of a hobo, goes on a journey of self-discovery, yadda yadda.

Okay, fine, it wasn’t all that bad. I liked being in T.S.’s head. I liked witnessing how he grew up inside that train, and once off it. I like how he’s innocent and so tragically smart at the same time. I like how he slowly discovers, throughout the course of this journey, that things aren’t always what they seem.

And yet, I still could not shake the feeling of dull melancholy that had been lurking since my departure, a kind of persistent hollowness, similar to the feeling I got when eating cotton candy: initially there was so much associated nostalgia, so much promise emanating from those luscious pink threads, but when I got down to the act of licking it or biting it or whatever one did to cotton candy, there was just not a lot there — in the end, you were just eating a sugar wig.

I like T.S. The problem is, Larsen didn’t seem to know what to do with him, how to make him grow as a character. That is, when we near the last third of the book, the world around T.S. degenerates into this great narrative hot mess. I’m not even talking about how T.S. exists in that world. That is, perhaps, if this book was the perfect book it ought to have been, then the central thesis would be something about the futility of representation when we’re trying to process something and the sick, sad, discovery of misrepresentations in the things we know to be true. That could’ve been the best thing ever, and I wouldn’t be scowling as I wrote this entry.

But no, oh no. No one gave Larsen a gentle nudge to say, “Hey, this is a great book, ya know. Why don’t you polish that last bit up so it won’t seem like you’ve got no idea what to do with this great premise? You owe it to yourself, dude, ya know? This is an awesome book. Just, let’s see. Just take a break for a bit. Go fishing or something. And then come back, fresh eyes, just read this through. That little voice, saying, ‘Yo, change me!’? You obey that voice. Don’t do anything to the illustrations, the maps, those are great. Don’t change T.S. a bit. Just, you know. The last third of the book. Obey the voice, Reif. Obey!” Ai-yah. A novel is a tricky thing to map, you said so yourself — well, T.S. did:

At times the invented landscape provided me shelter from the burdens of having to chart the real world in its entirety. But this escapism was always tempered by a certain emptiness: I knew I was deceiving myself through a work of fiction. Perhaps balancing the joys of escapism with the awareness of deception was the whole point of why we read novels, but I was never able to successfully manage this simultaneous suspension of the real and the fictive. Maybe you just needed to be an adult in order to perform this high-wire act of believing and not-believing at the same time.

In my notes, I scribbled something about how to draft this post: “End with something cute: a map of our lives, as cryptic as what we drew in the first place, something like that.” I don’t even want to go there anymore. I’m just disappointed. In a good-natured way, actually. In a Fine, I’ll take this, but you were so close, dude, so close way.

See, I still very much like this book. I am weird. Also, I suspect that the pictures are to blame. Nothing beats a book with pictures, I learned this at three.

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4 comments

  1. Oh, I loved this book! I think I was just in the right mood for it at the time (stuck in a house in the summer with no internet or TV). In fact, I was so swept away that I don’t remember what was wrong with the ending, but the fact that I don’t remember it (compared to the lovely scenes at home and on the train) might speak for itself.

  2. I was planning on getting this, now I’m having second thoughts…

  3. @ Lija, @ Blooey — You know what, there are really really really bad deal-breakers, but that ending wouldn’t really stop me from recommending this book to friends (with reservations, of course). It really is a fun, joy-filled read — but I still feel that it was soooo very close to being perfect. If only he — or someone! an editor! an early reader! — had thought long and hard about that ending. This book is such a treasure, that slip-up can be heartbreaking.

  4. […] The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, by Reif Larsen. […]

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