I have been holding off writing this review because I’ve never felt quite so personally unravelled by a novel. Call me a nerd – for that is what I am – but the emotional entanglement I feel with good fiction has become more complicated after encountering Reif Larsen’s ‘The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet’. I fell deeply in love with this book very quickly, but turned the final pages feeling letdown, heartbroken even.
The cover of the book, or my edition at least, is beautiful (and even better without that Daily Mail sticker on the front!), and I have derived comfort in contemplating the book whilst tracing my fingers over the rolling blue waves and the stark outline of the different states. Inside, a story awaits about a young mapmaker and his journey across America, from his farm in Montana to Smithsonian Institute in D.C. He makes maps of everything in his life, from corn shucking and parental facial expressions, to the loneliness of city pedestrians and the automated menu options on a phone. What is spectacularly beautiful about the book is that these maps mark the margins next to the text, as illustrations that not only aid the narrative, but also bring an alternative and enchanting way of interacting with the story. It’s not so much that the book is brought alive by the maps – as the storytelling does that on it’s own – it’s more that it brings another dimension, a new perspective, a different way of presenting a narrative, which is exactly what Larson’s view of the power of maps seems to be. As noted in the book, ‘a map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected.’
Now, I have yet to meet another human being who is not in some way intrigued by the power of maps, their quality of detailing information that requires a scientific logic but also an artistic creativity. We love maps because of their power to represent reality, and we hang in the balance between the truth of the map, and the awareness that this truth is limited, a fragment, to be used only as a guide. I know many scholars who are often keen to draw on the metaphor of mapping for the value of their research – it’s best for navigation, a particular perspective on the world, do not confuse it with the whole, with the real world. As T.S. notes about his own early attempts at map-making, ‘in retrospect, the map’s crudeness was not only due to the shaky hands of youth but also because I did not understand that the map of a place was different from the place itself. At age six, a boy could enter the world of a map just as easily as the genuine article.’ What blew me away about this book was the reverence, almost mysticism that Larson created around the power and limitations of maps, and indeed the mapmakers themselves.
T.S. is more than obsessed with map-making, it’s something of a quest, a heroic burden on him to map as much of existence as he can. It’s beautifully played and balanced this quest. On the one hand, you feel that it is the impulses of an odd 12-year-old boy, slightly out of time and out of step with the surrounding world, to try and comprehend his surroundings through scientific observation. (There is an underlying sense that his genius comes with a lack of social and emotional intelligence: he makes maps of facial expressions to try and understand emotions; he calls his mother Dr Clair and appears to see her more as a scientific colleague than a family member; and he has elaborate packing routine every time he leaves the house, in order to prevent hyperventilating.) At the same time, this obsession with mapmaking as a search for understanding the world and trying to find a place in it feels so emotional rather than rational that you cannot help but feel that these desires are common to all of us, and indeed what make us human. Due to this, I resonated completely with T.S’s cartographic desires, and felt that ache, that inner loneliness of the knowledge of never being able to make a single map that draws everything together, single map that can detail every truth. T.S. draws on this power and transience of systems and maps in one of the annotations: ‘Still, even with such a system in place, things fell and things broke; piles formed and my methods of orientation always seemed to unravel. I was only twelve, but through the slow, inevitable burn of a thousand sunrises and sunsets, a thousand maps traced and retraced, I had already absorbed the valuable precept that everything crumbled into itself eventually, and to cultivate a crankiness about this was just a waste of time.’
The book begins with T.S. out West on the ranch he calls home, and this section of the book is full of charming, moving insights and humorous annotations. He receives a call from the Smithsonian Institute, who offer him a prestigious award on the basis of his work, clearly unaware that he is only twelve. The middle section of the book details his journey across America to get there – ‘hoboing’ on trains and hitching lifts with truckers. This is interspersed with stories from a notebook stolen from his mother about his Great-Great-Grandmother, Emma Osterville, one of the first female geologists in America. The tale is pleasant enough, and provides the opportunity for T.S. to gain insight into his mother as a person and family member as well as a scientist. This family story is perhaps telling in it’s lack of an ending; his mother cannot write the great romance of the story, which for T.S. is evidence of her uncertainty about staying with his father and raises questions about what keeps any of us together, and whether loyalty and love can be evidenced in any scientific mapping. The story begins to unravel however, as T.S. reaches the Smithsonian. There is, of course, the issue of these scientists being confronted with the fact that their prize-winner is actually a 12 year old, who has arrived without the permission of his parents. Following this, there is a lot of confusion surrounding television interviews, being turned into a political pawn for the Smithsonian, and even secret clubs and hidden tunnels. By this point, the charm of the book feels lost and the narrative confused, paralleling in many ways T.S.’s own displacement and confusion. There is no Hollywood moment where he gains clear insight and gets himself out of the mess of lies and politics he is in, or where he delivers an erudite speech to the scientific community. Instead, he becomes more lost, adrift without his mapmaking equipment, growing more lonely as he realises his inability to come to terms with the death of his brother, Layton, and his own part in Layton’s passing. The insight and the wonder of the first half of the book have diminished, and the obsessive little boy has become irritating in his genius and his childishness. In many ways, this disappointing ending to the book feels like the dawning realisation that, despite his brilliance, we are dealing with a 12 year old: the promise and genius cannot be sustained, leaving only a sense of dissatisfaction.
Having laughed, cried and felt undone by the first quarter of the book, it is understandable that I felt cold, even a little angry at the ending being unable to live up to the magic. However, I’d still recommend the book, if only for the novel experience of the annotations and drawings in the margins. The book also contains one of my favourite scenes about dealing with gender pressure and playground bullying, which is too long to relate here, but contains a hilarious comeback for anyone who has ever been picked on by a little girl. And, if like most people, you are entranced by the beauty of maps and their makers, it’s worth picking up for knowing that someone else can describe that joy so eloquently.