About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

#91 - The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

From the moment you pick it up, you know The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, by Reif Larsen (Penguin Press, 2009) is an unusual book. It's shaped differently, for one thing, taller and wider than the average novel. And throughout the entire book, beginning with the back of the title page that contains the LoC data, are notes and sketches in the margins; a kinder, gentler footnote, if you will, explaining some tangent or other of the narrator's reverie.

In the wake of the vaguely disturbing Fault Lines, it's nice to read about a far less creepy and more likeable childhood prodigy. Here, it's the title character, Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, of the Coppertop Ranch near Divide, Montana. Named for a long line of Tecumsehs (most recently, his father) and the bird that flew into the kitchen window the day of his birth, T.S. is a brilliant cartographer who maps everything from older sister Gracie's corn-shucking movements to his bedroom to the Continental Divide to the mysterious tiger monk beetle (and that's just in the first 10 pages). As he explains it, "[a] map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between dispaeate ideas that we did not know were previously connected. To do this right is very difficult."

T.S. is also 12 years old, which presents some logistical problems when he receives a phone call from the Smithsonian Institution, congratulating him on receiving the prestigious Baird Award and inviting him to come to Washington, D.C. to accept in person. Chief among these is, he can't tell his parents. His father is a taciturn rancher who's never understood his map-obsessed son; his mother, Dr. Clair, is herself a scientist whose lifelong search for the elusive tiger monk beetle seems to have stalled her career indefinitely. The whole family, T.S. included, is still grieving the loss of his younger brother Layton, who shot himself while playing in the barn. His mentor, Dr. Yorn, knows (he submitted T.S.'s porfolio for the award, after all), but is a little too emphatic in encouraging T.S. to come clean with Dr. Clair about the work they've done for the Smithsonian and how it's now come to fruition.

So T.S. does what any normal 12 year old would do, or at least what they'd imagine doing: he packs a suitcase and hops aboard a freight train, determined to hobo it across the country. Thus begins an adventure that lead Stephen King to claim the book "combines Mark Twain, Thomas Pynchon, and Little Miss Sunshine." I've never read Pynchon, but the Twain and LMS analogies only partly capture the core of T.S. Spivet -- yes, there's travel involved, and yes, some of T.S.'s observations are fascinating and funny. However, there's also an underlying sadness here, as we see when the monotony of T.S.'s train trip leads him to wonder if going out into the world to claim his prize is really all it's cracked up to be:
"And yet, I still could not shake the feeling of dull melancholy that had been lurking since my departure, a kind of persistent hollowness, similar to the feeling I got when eating cotton candy: initially there was so much associated nostalgia, so much promise emanating from those luscious pink threads, but when I got down to the act of licking it or biting it or whatever one did to cotton candy, there was just not a lot there -- in the end, you were just eating a sugar wig."
Likewise, for all his sense of being out of place as a rancher's boy (read: not being Layton), he begins to wonder upon waking up in Chicago whether even his map-making skills have their limits:
"I fell under the city's spell of multiplicity and transience. One could not possibly process an urban landscape like this through the sum of its details. All of my usual abilities of observation, measurement, and visual synthesis began to shut down one after anoter. Fighting a rising panic, I tried to retreat to the familiar territory of pattern recognition, but with thousands of minute observations to choose from, there were either too many patterns or none at all."
Not surprisingly, many of his musings involve family: the idiosyncracies of his parents, the seeming mismatch of Dr. Clair and Tecumseh Elijah, and the relative importance of choice, predetermination, and love in who and what we become.
"Perhaps the family tree was not the best natural metaphor for tracing your genealogy back in time from the single quivering stalk of your existence to the many roots of your ancestors. Trees grow upward, and thus they would be growing back in time. ... It seemed better to picture the forking and joining of the Spivets and Ostervilles as the forks and splits of a river. And yet such an image raised parallel questions of choice: were the bends of a river guided only by chance -- by wind, by erosion, by the fitful heave and sigh of their granulated shores? Or was there a prefixed destination dictated by the sequence of bedrock beneath the riverbed?"
These ideas are fueled by a notebook of his mother's that T.S. inadvertently packed, which (surprisingly) contains not her field notes, but the story of his paternal grandmother, Emma Osterville, a one-time geologist. When the young Emma wavers in her determination to enroll in Vassar's inaugural class, her mother Elizabeth's exhortations highlight T.S.'s growing ambivalence about not telling his parents of his trip:
"If you do not pack all of your garments and drawings and notebooks and pens by week's end and you do not take that train, I will never forgive you. You mustn't throw this away. To close yourself off to what is possible is to kill part of yourself, and that part will never grow again. You can marry and you can bear many beautiful children, but a part of you will be dead and you will feel that coldness every time you wake in the morning. You are on the cusp of opening up the world -- who knows what great and glorious things lie in store for you at that college? This is a world that has never been tested before, never been dreamed of."
Despite a close call in the Windy City, T.S. eventually does make it to D.C. and the Smithsonian's Emerald City, where he makes the most of his chance to explain his craft to the capital's finest scientific minds:
"Many people have asked me why I spend all my time drawing maps instead of playing outside with other boys my age. My father, who is a rancher from Montana, does not really understand me. I try to show him how maps can be useful in his line of work, but he doesn't listen. My mother is a scientist like you people ... . But you know what is strange? Even though she is a scientist, she still doesn't understand me. She doesn't really see the purpose of mapping all the people I meet, all the places I see, everything that I have ever witnessed or read about. But I don't want to die without having taken a crack at figuring out how the whole thing fits together."
However, he soon begins to wonder if these patrons, and even their science, are all they're cracked up to be. At one point, we see a sidebar excerpt from one of his notebooks about what marks the transition from child to adult, where he observes, "You were an adult if you: 1. Took naps for no reason. 2. Didn't get excited about Christmas. ... 9. Were suspicious of children and their motives. 10. Didn't get excited about anything." Later, his enthusiastic and heart-tugging Smithsonian speech notwithstanding, he confesses privately to his notebook that he isn't quite as firm a believer in his maps as he lets on:
"When you drew a map of something, this something then became true, at least in the world of the map. But wasn't the world of the map never the same as the world of the world? So no map-truths were ever truth-truths. I was in a dead-end profession. I think I knew I was in a dead-end profession, and the dead-endedness was what made it so attractive. In my heart of hearts, there was a certain comfort in knowing that I was doomed to failure."

For the most part, this is a (pardon the pun) novel and fascinating story, with a lot to say about family, growing up, scholarship, and loneliness. Without giving too much away, I do take issue with some of the goings-on in the Washington, D.C. segment of the book; there's a whole subplot that turns up here that frankly, just seemed tacked-on and silly ... a disappointing wrinkle in an otherwise-exceptional story. This hardly spoils the effect, though; this is a gorgeous book.

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