Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet

[Note: this article presumes reading the book, and contains spoilers]

I have a few things to say about The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.

The novel was a best-seller when it came out in June of 2009, and initially received press attention because of the monumental advance the author Reif Larsen received for this first novel ($1 million). The reviews were mixed: most reviewers wanted very much to like such an unusually eloquent and evocative voice, but several (notably the New York Times and Washington Post reviewers) found the latter part of the book, especially the parts where T.S. Spivet visits Washington, disappointing.

Well, to be honest, they weren't my favorite bits either. But then, they also weren't T.S.'s favorite, and it kind of shows. The book, like most maps, doesn't entirely work as a linear narrative. It's a puzzle in which the linear progression of time and plot, while certainly straightforward (this is no Memento), is not the dominant, salient feature. Really, the most important moment is about 2/3 of the way through, when, at the conclusion of reading his mother's reconstruction of his great-grandmother's early life story, she abruptly cuts off the narrative, writing the name of T.S.'s dead brother, who perhaps died as she was writing. In this sense, it's a little like the symmetry of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", where the second half of the novel has the character working his way from that crux point, the nowhere of a midwestern wormhole, back to his family. Coleridge's Mariner's return journey also suffers somewhat...

The way T.S. simultaneously orbits his brother's death and avoids it that forms the central motion of the book. And an orbit is hardly a linear path: we return again and again to the same basic relationships: T.S.'s distant, formal relationship with both his scientist mother and cowboy father, his typically exasperated coexistence with both his living and deceased siblings, his obsession with drawing diagrams and maps as a way of making sense of the world, and the utter senselessness offered up by the world that he tries to map.

This is the second book about map people I've read this year. Unlike the author/subject of Map Addict (see my discussion here), the fictional narrator of this book is consumed by the promise of mapping and more generally of scientific study of the universe. It's appropriate that the character be a child—a prodigy with an disturbingly grown-up diction (and who has not known children with disturbingly grown-up diction)—but it is also notable, and lovely, to see a cameo appearance by Corlis Benefideo, the subject of Barry Lopez's short story "The Mappist" (see discussion here). And it's clear that Larsen wants his hero to be like the narrator's daughter in that story—the promise of a new generation who will humbly carry on the Work of mapping the world, piece by piece.

It's not how us cartographers usually see our role, any more than "making myths" being how novelists consciously view their craft as they go about it from day to day. But Larsen is pointing in this circular, spiraling book to the same basic sense Lopez pointed to: the humble recording and exploring and searching and the piece-by-piece processing of it all, is a kind of prayer to the universe. It's a kind of love.

So it really is a peculiar novel. It points toward what it's trying to say, leaving the largest points mostly unsaid, like notes at the edge of the map saying this destination is a certain distance further. We find a genius cartographer running into things that are unmappable and yet that mapping is his tool. We see a desire to be part of a great scientific enterprise crumbled into disillusionment, but not disillusionment with the enterprise, just with the clothes it has to wear—T.S. may be saying goodbye to the Smithsonian and to Washington, but not to the idea of the Smithsonian.

I keep seeing these sorts of orbits underlying some of my favorite books. The orbit in Diana Wynne Jones' Fire and Hemlock is deceptive—it's a love story that orbits a kind of modernist despair. Here, the obvious suppressed and not-so-suppressed grief over T.S. brother's death looks like the focus of the orbit. T.S. clearly thinks it's what he's circling. But in the end, what is revealed a kind of stubborn, slow trust that some of the world is comprehensible. Even the terrible, stupid meaninglessness of his brother's death. In the end, the author (and narrator) point towards the love of parent and child, the care even the most scientific of us end up showing each other, that he has been circling, unaware, for the entire novel.


Gretchen said...

This is interesting, thanks for the synopsis and discussion. Overall it seems as though you felt it was worth your time to read it - is that correct? It looks like my library has several copies so perhaps I'll go check it out.

natcase said...

Gretchen: Yes it was worth my time to read it. Especially as a cartographer and someone who has a sorting/filing kind of mind.