Apr/May 2009

Wise Guide

Colin Fleming


Unlike most bildungsromans—  especially of the road-story variety—Reif Larsen’s debut, The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, features an upstart whose growth and burgeoning self-awareness are captured in an internal monologue, rather than sundry adventures on the trail. Not that our plucky hero, Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, twelve-year-old cartographer magnifique, doesn’t embroil himself in some shenanigans when he lights out from his family’s Montana ranch, jumps a freight train, and makes his way to the Smithsonian in Washington to claim the prestigious Baird award for the popular advancement of science.

T. S. is an obsessive mapper and measurer, a prodigy for whom sketching a cut-in of beetle cilia is akin to a few rounds of PlayStation for the average prepubescent boy. Yet T. S. retains the intrinsically boyish qualities that fill the pages of, say, one of Booth Tarkington’s Penrod novels: the love of a good breakfast cereal and a dog’s wet nose, the alternating thrill and guilt of gumming up the pursuits of a love-struck sister. And, of course, the dull pang of leaving childish things behind as manhood encroaches on the scene.

Then again, T. S. is anything but a child in his intellectual proclivities. For starters, he’s likely smarter than just about anyone you know, and he gives crash courses in Butte’s watershed, Darwin, Erwin Rommel, film, wormholes, toasters, and Humboldtean metaphysics. All of which makes Larsen’s novel an ambitious endeavor, and its success depends on how readily you believe that the narrative voice actually belongs to this particular boy. Inventing a preternaturally bright child is always tricky, but Larsen imbues T. S. with his own creditable identity, making him every bit as doubting and overwhelmed as he is precocious and indomitable—he’s a little bundle of paradoxes, with the proper literary DNA of any well-formed character. On top of that, he’s a right laugh, which never hurts.

On the Montana ranch, T. S. drops into cowpoke vernacular when trying to communicate with his hard-driving cowboy father, a man clearly bewildered by his child. Another son, Layton, died earlier that year in a gun accident in the barn, the grisly result of one of T. S.’s Seismoscope experiments gone wrong. Consequently, T. S. suffers from a guilt complex years before most of us grapple with such stuff. His mother, a scientist in search of a mystical insect that T. S. is certain does not exist, is also a writer, as he discovers after swiping one of her notebooks before beginning his journey to the Smithsonian. Sixteen-year-old sister Gracie dreams of becoming a movie star, and kindly professor Doctor Yorn serves as the boy’s mentor, submitting his charge’s maps and illustrations for the Baird award. Believing his family ill equipped to grapple with his ascendant career—and especially fearful of threatening his mother in her own efforts—T. S. lights out for the Eastern Seaboard. The Spivets’ fleck of a town doesn’t require a proper railway station with regularly stopping trains, so he shimmies up a signal pole and colors over the light with a red Sharpie, ensuring that the next approaching locomotive pulls to a stop. Away we go, as T. S. hauls himself atop a flatcar and takes up residence in a pinioned Winnebago.

Ruminations kick in—always suitably prompted—and it is through them that we come to know this narrator as he in turn sorts himself out. A craving for food and the hope of finding a McDonald’s set T. S. wondering about the trident design of the restaurant’s logo and why groupings of three are central to memory. In turn, he travels back through the generations with the help of his mother’s manuscript, an attempt to explain how the Spivets ended up in the West despite being of eastern stock. The text’s shaky veracity disarms the young scientist: “I was hooked in both believing and not believing. Maybe I was becoming an adult.” Doubts readily give life to truths.

Such inversions are the norm here: The mother is more writer than scientist, using empirical data as a blind to create a fanciful narrative; the son, more man than boy. The family’s journey west ultimately results in T. S.’s heading east to conquer scientific frontiers, reversing Horace Greeley’s credo. Even the physical precepts of the novel form itself are inverted, with chunks of the work taking place, literally, in the margins, which are filled with diagrams, annotations, and parallel tales. The tale is an internal monologue, voiced in memories, graphs, and maps, where even machines are bestowed the power of cognition. “We are Easterners,” declares a set of sleek trains, midjourney, in T. S.’s head. “If we were able to, we would wear monocles over our Engine Eye and talk of Rousseau. Have you read Rousseau? He is our favorite.”

The physical action ratchets up as we go along: A cop nearly apprehends T. S.; a crazed preacher tries to carve the devil out of the boy’s chest; a racist yet well-meaning trucker offers transport. For the Washington third of the book, Larsen evokes the sycophantic, celebrity-addled leanings of our age as people try to cash in on the prodigy in their midst. An antigovernment, pro-radical science secret society covets T. S. as well, and it’s a grab-fest all around, until a most unexpected figure intervenes prior to T. S.’s meeting with the president. The maps, graphs, and theories are put aside, and Larsen skillfully conjures an epiphany: Maturity comes as the boy sets his story to the page, creating a cartography of psyche and soul rather than latitude and longitude.

Colin Fleming has fiction forthcoming in the Republic of Letters, Boulevard, and TriQuarterly.

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