Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Adventure story meets Joseph Cornell Box (Books - The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen)

Reif Larsen's debut novel, The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet is a delightful hybrid of a child's adventure story and a Joseph Cornell box. In it, T. S., the 12-year-old son of a scientist (mother) and cowboy (father) living in Montana, comes of age as he compulsively maps everything from the structure of a goat's eye, to the positions of his hands when he fidgits, to the pattern of dinner conversation between his family before and after the death of his younger brother. Although the story is set today, he and his mother seem a throw-back to the 18 and 19th century polymathic scientist, who studied each thing in the natural world that piqued their curiosity, making copious notes and accurate diagramatic drawings in their notebooks. No phenomenon seems to skirt T.S.'s fascination, how his sister (the one fairly typical member of the family) shucks corn, the possible movements of a pair of hands playing cat's cradle, these drawing and their notes accompany the text as marginalia - in a handsome, large-format hardcover published by Penguin Press - but they probably occupy 30% of the book, and they are anything but thematically marginal.

The action of the story unfolds when T.S. receives a call from the Smithsonian Institute that he has received an award. His mentor, a college professor, has been submitting his maps and the Smithsonian is unaware that their honoree is 12-years-old. T.S. decides to hop a boxcar (another throw back) to Washington D.C. replete with his drafting equipment to accept his award. The book is at once adventure story, fantasy, and fictional biography. The terribly intelligent portrait of a unique young brain and an overly cute gimmick that, when push comes to shove, works because it is more than its gimmick. The story is really about finding one's way in the world after great loss. Arcana may seem to sidetrack the story, but they are really the means by which T. S. and his mother can pursue intellectual fasicnation and avoid the pain they feel after the death of their brother/son Layton (and the more general loneliness they experience as being outcast because of their tremendous intelligence). I feel that Larsen occasionally skips some essential details about Spivet's journey that bother me (like how on earth he goes to the bathroom over two days on a freight locomotive). We don't have to imagine any other details, so why this one? Prudishness? A lot of the time the loss of minutia wouldn't bother me, but in this case minutia is constantly the point, so it seems a serious omission. Larsen also relies too heavily on deus ex machinae to get him out of some narrative holes he has dug himself into, but the book's depth of feeling brings it all together. I can forgive some of the silliness because the character convinced me and his story moved me.

I make the Joseph Cornell parallel because, although Larsen uses words (and pictures) to tell his story, it is more the construction of elements I am aware of than his prose. One doesn't admire Cornell's draftsmanship or painting, it is his placement of ephemera in a box containing sub-compartments and drawers, that creates a poem out of ordinary postcards, clay pipes, and other kitsch. In our assembly of them, we have an experience and perhaps even arrive at some meaning their whole conveys. Larsen's book functions similarly. Although arrows direct you to each note from a specific place in the text, you decide if and when you read the note on Montana's water table. There is a hands-on, game-like quality to the reading of Larsen's book and its experience is an object which is rare in books today. Although a youngster could certainly read it with enjoyment, this strikes me more as as a grown-up adventure story about a 12-year-old. I can also see it having both computer game and film potential, so I am sure the publisher is delighted. All in all, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is an inventive, entertaining, and very touching debut novel. I look forward to Reif Larsen's next discovery.

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