Thursday, July 02, 2009

Book Review: "The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet"

Reif Larsen's The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet (Penguin, 2009) is the sort of book that doesn't lend itself well to reviews (or at least, to the composition of a review). This is partly because it's difficult to describe, and partly because it's somewhat uneven: I want to rave about certain aspects of it, and some others just didn't seem to work quite right. So I'm not sure how this is going to end up, but let me give it a try.

T. S. Spivet is a 12-year old Montana ranch boy, whose proclivities run to making maps, tormenting his older sister, and analyzing the stuffing out of every aspect of his life and the lives of those around him. He's intensely precocious in some respects, but childish in others ("I had a stash of Cheerios in every pocket of every piece of clothing I owned, which often led to a mess in the laundry room"), and the tensions between these two conflicting elements of his personality carry through the book. The story opens with a surprise phone call to T. S. from an official at the Smithsonian, announcing that Spivet has won their prestigious Baird Prize and asking him to travel to D.C. for the award ceremony. Naturally, an odyssey ensues as T. S. packs up and ships out, hopping a train headed east.

We follow his travels across the country as he muses about himself, his family (distracted parents, both marred by a recent tragedy), and his hunger. A subplot, in the form of a pilfered notebook from his mother's study, revolves around one of T. S.'s ancestors, another precocious young scientist trying to make her way in the world. The narrative is complemented by marginalia - footnotes, drawings, charts and maps - part of the wonderfully complex and delightful design of this book (it is certainly one of the most aesthetically pleasing trade hardbacks I've read recently). These additions do nothing to detract from the narrative, indicated as they are with handy arrows which tell you precisely when to check them out. If you don't like footnotes, this will probably annoy you. I found it enjoyable.

At about the halfway point, things start to get a bit odd, and it's all downhill from there. The final few chapters, covering T. S.'s time in Washington, didn't fit well at all with the rest of the book; the end came suddenly and, I'm sad to say, was a disappointment. Spivet's wit and humor mixed with pathos and emotional upheaval, which made the first two thirds of the book a delight, evaporated into a grand muddle of weirdness which I think Spivet himself would have been unable to diagram coherently.

Overall, I have to give Larsen very high marks for the design of the book, the wonderful character he's created in T. S. Spivet, and the first nine or ten chapters. I will look forward to his next book with anticipation.

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