Marginalia magic 

Buzz builds for Larsen’s T.S. Spivet

Maybe you’ve heard the buzz surrounding Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. The author, among other puff pieces, earned a short profile in the May issue of Vanity Fair—quite an accomplishment for a 29-year-old first-time novelist. The buzz, however, isn’t about the book itself but the frenzy among publishers jostling for position: Exactly 10 publishers bid on the book, and the winner, Penguin, paid Larsen nearly a million dollars for the rights to publish it. “Recession?” wrote Vanity Fair’s Evgenia Peretz. “What recession?”

To understand why publishers paid out for this book at a time when the industry is hurting, simply crack open the novel and glance through the pages. It’s beautifully wrought with intricate maps and drawings written into the margins, all accompanied by the puckish narration of a 12-year-old genius cartographer, Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet. The book’s marginalia represent the musings of T.S., the son of a Montana rancher father and an eccentric coleopterist mother, who maps the everyday objects and emotions in his own life—from his older sister’s five categories of boredom, to the “patterns of cross-talk” at his family’s dinner table—as well as more scientific topics, including the diagram of the Berkeley Pit and the water table of his family’s ranch.

At the heart of the story is a family tragedy: the death of the older brother, Layton, from an accident that occurred during one of T.S.’ scientific experiments. The accident deeply wounded a family already struggling with its disparate personalities because Layton had bridged the gulf between the father’s mute cowboy world and T.S.’ scientific one. With the boy’s death, the silence in the Spivet household threatens to break the family, and when T.S. wins a prestigious award from the Smithsonian, he hops a freight train to Washington, D.C. It’s on the journey east that T.S. comes to terms with his brother’s death and his family’s dysfunction.

While the story is moving, it’s the jumping, ever-shifting thoughts of T.S. Spivet that makes the novel hum. He charts the style of how his sister shucks corn, compares the squeak of his family’s gate to his neighbor’s, draws the evolution of his father’s facial expressions. A standoff with his middle-school science teacher leads to an aside (with drawing) on male pattern baldness. A farewell glance at his family’s ranch leads to a diagram of the flight patterns of Yuma bats on the property. Awkward dinner conversation births an investigation of the different “pea anger ovals” of food pushed around on his sister’s plate. It’s the contrast between the sophistication of a keen scientific mind, and the naive observations of a child trying to make sense out of human relationships.

“I sometimes wondered,” muses T.S., “how things would have turned out differently if [biologist and mentor] Dr. Yorn were my father…Then [we] could sit around the dinner table and have scientific discussions about antennae morphology and how to drop an egg off the Empire State Building without it breaking. Would life be normal then?”

But the book is also deeply flawed. The loose plot occasionally tips unrelated side-passages and plot developments that go nowhere into the story. Near the beginning of his journey, T.S. informs us he has a “hyperactive metabolism” and needs to eat regularly, else his “brain slowly began to shut down.” It’s a condition that causes him, a few hours after he hitches a ride on his freight train, to search for a McDonald’s Happy Meal at its first stop in Pocatello, Idaho. While the story advances during this excursion—he meets a hobo storyteller named “Two Clouds,” and the restaurant’s golden arches dislodge a vital memory—T.S. manages to ride the train the rest of the way to Chicago with hardly a thought of food. It’s a niggling but vital detail that distracts the reader from the plot as it unfolds, the way a pricetag hanging from a pair of glasses, say, distracts from the wearer’s eyes.

And the last third of the story undergoes a seismic shift in tone and story. The bulk of the book follows the believable actions of a 12-year-old genius running away from home. Sure, it’s fantastic and exaggerated, but it’s plausible—kind of a magical realism. But about 200 pages into the novel, the book turns into a kind of hallucinatory satire complete with a secret society scuttling about underground tunnels beneath the nation’s capitol, where T.S. transforms from a courageous explorer into a passive child who’s pulled and pushed by the various grownups who have an interest in him.

Still, the book is special. In Larsen’s story, we’re treated to scatter shot, yet deep investigations—a book that ties disparate ideas and observations into a kind of holistic statement in a text that uses a mix of media to advance the plot. And isn’t that how we read nowadays, thanks to the Internet? From The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, I can see a possible framework for writers to integrate music, video and perhaps even reader participation into their works. And maybe that’s why publishers, faced with ever-diminishing interest in their products, decided to bid so lavishly on the book. Maybe they see their future.

Reif Larsen leads a discussion on The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet at Fact & Fiction Friday, May 15, at 3:30 PM, and reads from the book at 7 PM.
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