The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet

by Reif Larsen

Rating: ★★★★

Larsen's debut novel is a beautifully-illustrated tale about the increasingly improbable adventures of a young mapmaker. Filled with amusing and intricate diagrams, often providing annotation to the main story, the book is certainly artful, and it is mostly this strength which carries the somewhat broken plot.

There are certainly strengths to the writing itself, which touches on themes of early maturation, scientific wonder, and the surrender of dreams to love and family. The somewhat disconnected voice of the main character would sit uncomfortably on anyone other than a child genius, which of course is why T. S. is such a specimen. Confusion and wonder are suitable things for a scientist and a child, and there is a hint of Mark Twain in the way he leaps on the railway to make his way across the country to accept an honour from the Smithsonian.

Yet there are undeniably flaws. A very long portion of the novel is a reading from a stolen novel draft written by T.S.'s mother (or, as he consistently refers to her, Dr. Clair). While illuminating about many of Spivet's family matters, the device is rather heavy-handed, and far too long and dreary for what it reveals. The plot never really recovers well from this device, making a sudden turn from 'unbelievable tale' to 'absurd, and not in a funny way' as Spivet reaches his destination, eventually culminating in a movie-style ending that falls decidedly flat.

Throughout the book, Spivet talks about map-making as a science and an art, making a compelling case for why making sense of the wold and presenting it in a simplified manner is a skill underlying scientific matter from all disciplines. His maps win him a prestigious position, and his age in due course makes him famous, yet what the story starts to focus on from the outset of the great train journey is things falling outside his ability to map -- matters of his own identity, and of family mysteries whose resolution draw him away from the lights of success. Similarly, I felt, Larsen's maps, enthusiastic description of map-making, and the early adventure of the novel were engaging, but were let down by a soppy centre on the unmappable mysteries of human hearts and an ending which disappointingly crumbles the earlier structure of the book.

For the first half of the book, those who like Ender's Game and narratives about the history of science will find something they can easily enjoy, but I suspect they will start to feel let down. I expect most readers can appreciate the diagrams scattered through the novel, and it is really this novelty which keeps the book above average in my recollection.