BY NICO VREELAND
Author: Reif Larsen
Penguin Press, 2009
Best ebook deal: Don’t buy this as an ebook, you’ll miss out on all the marginalia
Filed under: Literary
Spivet is one of those charmingly original projects that can so easily go disastrously wrong.
Our hero and narrator is T.S. Spivet, a 12-year-old genius cartographer, who maps not just geographies, but also objects, actions, facial expressions, and everything else that catches his attention. The novel includes includes these maps, along with T.S.’s accompanying explanations and theories, as exhaustive marginalia on nearly every page (Spivet’s Amazon page has examples).
This is a convincing and striking portrayal of T.S.’s thought process, and Larsen’s prose is often beautiful, if pedantic. The problem, though, is that Larsen spends so much time diagramming the tributaries of T.S.’s mind, that he doesn’t pay attention to where the river is taking us.
Spivet is the kind of book people call “experimental” or “ambitious” or “lyrical,” but it feels awfully close to “gimmicky.” Especially because Spivet doesn’t avoid the major weakness of gimmicky novels, namely a tendency to be short on non-gimmick essentials like character, plot, and drama. We’re left with—and take it for what you will—a beautiful, visually creative project without a compelling story to ground it.
The basic plot goes like this: T.S.’s drawings get noticed by the Smithsonian, they offer him an award (not knowing he’s 12), and he takes off alone to accept it. The table of contents tells us that he gets there (although it doesn’t hint at the magnitude of boredom that he—and we—will encounter along the journey).
The novel is divided into three parts. The first section introduces us to T.S.’s life and family. His father is a gruff farmer, his mother is an aloof scientist whom he calls “Dr. Clair,” his sister is a generic teenager. He doesn’t have much interaction with any of these people since he spends most of his time in his own head. His most interesting relationship was with his brother, Layton, who died before the novel begins.
Just as this first section is beginning to pick up steam, T.S. leaves on a two hundred-page cross-country journey that should have taken a tenth of the space Larsen gives it. It seems that Larsen wanted this section to be a picaresque adventure, but forgot to include much adventure. Instead he spends the journey delving into T.S.’s ancestors and giving us more of T.S.’s catalog of mundanities, which are almost always beautiful but meaningless.
Larsen includes margin notes and drawings on about 90% of the pages, and sometimes the notes feel lazy, as if they’re there just to fill those big empty margins. One problem is that T.S. rarely (and then only briefly) interacts with other people. He has no chance to change as the novel goes along, and so the marginalia become repetitive and rarely more than tangential, when they could have been used to wonderfully flesh out T.S.’s development as he learns about the world.
When T.S. arrives at his destination, the story again picks up steam and we get a few glimpses of real drama, especially when T.S. finally deals with the events surrounding his brother’s death.
But then Larsen gives up on that, and pushes through a bizarre, unsatisfying, inscrutable ending full of twists and subplots. There’s no sense of consequence or maturation, and there’s no sense that Larsen had a plan in mind when he set out to write this novel. The story doesn’t build on itself, it only meanders, as the marginalia does, from surface to surface.
Frustratingly, Larsen is a very good writer; when he sets his mind to it, he writes beautiful prose and tense, haunting scenes. I think the reason this novel feels so unsatisfying is that Larsen is under the mistaken impression that he’s good enough to get away with things that are generally not recommended.
The microcosmic example of this is Larsen’s strange choice to have T.S. talk to inanimate objects. For example, here’s part of a conversation T.S. has with a porch on page 7:
I’m not good at spitting, I said. I make maps.
Maps? the porch asked. What is there to map? Spit into tin cans. Ride the high country. Take her easy.
There is plenty to map. I do not have time to take her easy. I do not even know what that really means.
You are not a ranch boy, you are a fool.
I am not a fool, I said. And then: Am I a fool?
You are lonely, the porch said.
This is not a terrible conversation, but it covers ground T.S. thinks about constantly. And since this is obviously T.S. talking to himself, Larsen gets the feel of conflict but avoids including a different point of view.
Also, there’s never any follow-through about why T.S. talks to inanimate objects, or why they never say anything that he himself doesn’t think and know. In short, the novel would be better if these conversations were cut out, or held between T.S. and real people with different perspectives.
In macrocosm, the premise of the book is also Larsen trying to get away with something he shouldn’t. Without a cohesive story, the marginalia becomes the substance of the novel. And that’s a shame not only because Larsen is good, but because the premise he establishes has more than enough depth and breadth to make for a captivating novel. His decision not to explore those depths is frustrating, to say the least.