Thursday, August 20, 2009


By Reif Larsen

Penguin, $27.95, 400 pages

Reviewed by Emily Colette Wilkinson

Upon first opening Reif Larsen’s illustrated novel “The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet,” you may be tempted to suspect that the novel’s hero and narrator, the child prodigy Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, and his selected works will be (like his name) precious, affectedly quaint — in a word, twee. If you’ve heard the hype about this novel — namely, that Penguin gave Mr. Larsen a $1 million advance for it, you may have developed (as this reviewer did) expectations so impossibly high that disappointment seems inevitable.

This is not so. Mr. Larsen’s fanciful account of the gifted young illustrator T.S. and his journey from his family’s ranch in Montana to Washington to accept the prestigious Baird Award from the Smithsonian Institution does not disappoint. T.S.’ character and voice will win you. He is a delicately calibrated mix of adult and child: an adult’s intelligence and insight mixed with a child’s honesty, wonder and lack of pretension.

This is not to say, however, that some of the book’s characters and its marginal illustrations and digressions are not twee (they are); nor is it to deny that the whole work sometimes feels like an eccentric dissertation masquerading as a novel, the whole designed to demonstrate what John Hodgeman has called “The Areas of My Expertise,” i.e. Mr. Larsen’s superabundant miscellaneous knowledge (it does). It is to say that cleverness and quaintness are merely the book’s surface and that they charm rather than cloy because T.S., like his book and his author, ultimately believes more in the human need for love and belonging than he does in the value of cleverness.

Mr. Larsen’s book is in some sense a children’s book. It is narrated by a child, and the adventures it recounts feel like something a child would imagine: stopping a freight train by coloring the railroad signal-light red with a Sharpie; riding the rails from Montana to Chicago; meeting a parable-reciting hobo named Two Clouds who inducts T.S. into the society of drifters by giving him the number of the Hobo hot line; entering a wormhole; escaping to safety with the help of a flock of sparrows; being inducted into the Megatherium Club, a secret society of self-taught scientists founded by Smithsonian enthusiasts in the 19th century with access to an otherwise unknown network of Civil War-era tunnels running between the White House, the Capitol and the Smithsonian.

But Mr. Larsen’s whimsical story — it feels more like a story than a plot sometimes, as if a child were making it up as he went along (“and then …, and then …”) belies the much more subtle psychological journey that 12-year-old T.S.’s adventures bring about. T.S., as it turns out, is not just trying to get to the Smithsonian when he hops a Union Pacific freighter heading for Chicago; he also is running away from a troubled family and his sense of responsibility for some of the family’s troubles.

T.S.’ parents are an improbable couple. His father, Tecumseh Elijah Spivet, is a struggling cattle rancher. The rugged, laconic cowboy spends evenings in his Sett’ng Room, a shrine to the Old West filled with “cowpuncher bric-a-brac,” watching old Westerns and drinking whiskey. Mr. Larsen has a gift for capturing voices, and the elder Spivet is one of his finest: He has a taste for expressions like “You can’t [expletive] a cricket,” and he disgustedly exclaims “New Yorkers!” whenever he finds something contemptuously weak or inadequate. T.S.’ mother, “a misguided cleopterist” (whom her son calls Dr. Clair) has spent most of her life hunting for “a phantom species of beetle” that T.S. suspects does not exist. She is preoccupied by her work and never seems fully present in her interactions with her children. She and her husband rarely speak, and how they ended up together, much less stayed together, is a mystery Mr. Larsen does not unravel.

As an aspiring scientist and cartographer who wants to map “the real world in its entirety,” T.S. identifies more with his mother. He feels he is a disappointment to his father. His father, a man of action, dismisses T.S.’ intellectual work, even when he tries to adapt it to the needs of his father’s ranch. T.S.’ brother Layton was the father’s favorite child, a beautifully self-assured wild boy who loved riding and shooting, but Layton is dead, the result of an accident T.S. believes to have been his fault. This loss has left the already dysfunctional Spivet family a little more unsteady.

If these family difficulties are too tidily dispatched at the end of Mr. Larsen’s tale, you forgive him because of T.S. — T.S., who imagines the “dandy fop” CSX train he attempts to hop to get from Chicago to Washington looks down on him and the ramshackle Union Pacific engine he has ridden from Montana: “We are Easterners,” the CSX seems to say, “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.”

This mix of sophistication and whimsy combined with T.S.’ earnest interest in difficult moral questions (like how to measure a man who says nasty, racist things but is tenderly attentive to you when you’re injured) and his (or Mr. Larsen’s) occasionally beautiful turns of phrase (“Everyone was sleeping, all of their ideas and hopes and hidden agendas entangled in the dream world, leaving this world clear and crisp and cold as a bottle of milk in the fridge.”) is something of a tonic: It lets you see again with a child’s sincerity and hope — lets you see the beauty and the fun that adult responsibilities can obscure.

Finally, Mr. Larsen also has borrowed a page from one of English literature’s earliest experimental novels: Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy.” Like Sterne, Mr. Larsen uses embedded images and tales and digressions. While this structure can be a little unnerving at first, it’s actually much truer to the real patterns of human thought and more revelatory of character than tidy linear narration. Human thoughts are messy, digressive and associative — perhaps even more so when they come from the hungry but distractible mind of a wunderkind.

Emily Colette Wilkinson, who lives in Pasadena, Calif., was the 2008 winner of the Virginia Quarterly Review’s Young Reviewer’s Contest.

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