By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
THE SELECTED WORKS OF T.S. SPIVET
By Reif Larsen
Penguin Press. 374 pp. $27.95
I fell in love with "The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet" on the first page, and so did the New York publishers who pushed the bids for this enchantingly illustrated novel toward $1 million. The narrator, Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, is a comically precocious 12-year-old boy on a secret trek to Washington, D.C., who speaks in a mixture of Victorian formality and eighth-grade goofiness. He maps and diagrams and annotates everything around him, from the orientation of his parents' Montana ranch to how his older sister shucks sweet corn. His guileless asides and antique-looking drawings fill the margins of "The Selected Works," mixing the graphic intensity of Nick Bantock's "Griffin & Sabine" with the ironic footnotes of Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace. Beware the bookstore display: If you pick this novel up and page through it, you'll be taking it home.
The story opens when T.S. receives a surprising call from the Smithsonian Institution. Apparently, someone has submitted T.S.'s scientific drawings that show how the Carabidae brachinus beetle expels boiling secretions, and he's won the prestigious Baird Award. (Of course, T.S. knows all about the Smithsonian's second secretary, Spencer F. Baird, who in the 19th century increased the institution's "collection from 6,000 to 2.5 million specimens before he died in Woods Hole.") Unaware that T.S. is just a boy, the museum administration invites him to give a speech and begin a fellowship in Washington. "All at once the preposterousness of what was happening fell into place in my mind," T.S. tells us. "I didn't often remember that I was twelve years old. Life was too busy to dwell on things like age, but at this moment, faced with a great misunderstanding fabricated by grown-ups, I suddenly felt the full weight of my youth, painfully and acutely."
In the wildly digressive chapters that follow, T.S. describes his "hoboing" cross-country adventure to the nation's capital, without money, without transportation and without telling his parents. Not to worry, though: His getaway suitcase contains "two sextants and one octant," along with his "Harmann Radiograph," "a Berenstain Bears handkerchief" and "underwear galore." He advises himself to "get some makeup and change your complexion. Buy a top hat. Speak in an Italian accent. Learn to juggle."
He thinks of himself as reversing the trek of his cartographic heroes, Lewis and Clark, but we see him in that long line of alienated young Americans that stretches from Huckleberry Finn to Jack Kerouac. "I did not belong here," T.S. says, echoing their sentiments.
With a break-your-heart mixture of deadpan humor, childlike anxiety and cerebral enthusiasm for all things (phone cords, pants, pirates), T.S. reflects on his brief life as he travels across the country, hidden inside a new Winnebago ("The Cowboy Condo") being transported on an eastbound Union Pacific freight train. "One need only whisper the phrase 'bustling railroad town' to raise my blood pressure a notch," he says.
But woven through his delightful anecdotes and tangents is the story of his childhood, his alienated parents and the ranch where they all live together in silence. These dark details emerge slowly, mostly in the marginalia, as though they can't be spoken straight out, but we learn early on that T.S.'s younger, much adored brother was killed six months earlier. No one ever mentions him, and the parents have withdrawn deep into their grief, leaving T.S. adrift, feeling unloved and guilty. His mother -- whom he refers to only as "Dr. Clair" -- rarely leaves her study; his stoic cowboy father makes it clear that he has no use for an effete, cerebral son.
T.S.'s compulsive mapping and diagramming is clearly an effort to make sense of the horrible randomness of his experience. Every drawing, he confesses, is an attempt to confirm "a feeling I had had my entire mapping life, since I first charted how one could walk up the side of Mt. Humbug and shake hands with God." In his diagram of the sound waves produced by a Winchester rifle, his illustration of the dinner table set for four instead of five, or his map to the funeral, the pathos of these marginal comments is crushing.
There must be a touch of T.S. in his creator, Reif Larsen, the young, unknown writer who made New York publishers lose their minds at the auction for this manuscript. The enormous size of his advance may stem from the fact that the novel makes such an enchanting first impression. There's a problem, though, when you actually sit down to read it through: "The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet" loses its way about halfway to Washington.
The first problem is that a big chunk in the middle of the novel is turned over to recounting the contents of a manuscript that T.S. has stolen from his mother. This internal story about his great-great-grandmother, who was also a precocious young scientist, simply can't compete with T.S.'s own adventure or his far more engaging voice. And then there's the disastrous ending, the whole final quarter of the novel, which grows unforgivably silly. A collection of campy adults, secret passageways and wholly ridiculous events forfeits all the novel's earlier magic for something cheap and tedious. The boy's complicated, emotionally fraught troubles with his parents, which have been so sensitively developed throughout the story, evaporate into gassy sentimentality in these final pages. I can't remember the last time my initial affection for a novel was so betrayed by its conclusion. It's maddening that somebody didn't help this young author polish "The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet" into the genre-breaking classic it could have been.
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