Friday 3 April 2009

terror incognita

The Selected Works of T.S.Spivet
by Reif Larsen

Occasionally a book comes along which feels quite unlike anything you've seen before. A few years ago I was absolutely enraptured by Chris Ware's graphic novel masterpiece Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, the dust jacket of which unfolded into a multipanelled art work which was enough to keep you occupied for a good while before starting the book itself. Reif Larsen has created a wonderful narrator in Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet (the sparrow comes from the bird which crashed into the window at the time of his birth, the reconstructed skeleton now one of his prize possessions), a twelve-year old with a passion for map-making and a unique view of the world, a view we get to enjoy pictorially with the numerous illustrations and maps which fill the generous margins, all created by the author himself.

'Something about measuring the distance between here and there cast off the mystery of what lay between, and as a child with limited empirical evidence, the unknown of what might just lie between here and there could be terrifying. I, like most children, had never been there. I had barely been here.'

The opening pages of this book are a joy as this talented boy tells us exactly how he sees the world, almost like the opposite to Holden Caulfield, a calm, rational and educated little man of science ('the method of enquiry that put all of my longing and curiosity to use crafting my little maps instead of mailing bombs to prominent capitalists') living out in Montana on a ranch with his curious family. His father is a tough, no-nonsense rancher, his mother (referred to as 'Dr Clair' throughout) an entomologist completely lost in her work. Larsen casually reveals early on that the family has retreated to their own separate areas of solace after the tragic death of T.S.'s brother Layton. We will learn more about this shooting as the book progresses but what it provides initially is the lack of parental control which allows T.S to go on a journey.

The reason for this journey are those beautiful illustrations. His teacher and mentor Dr Yorn had sent of examples of his work to none other than The Smithsonian, neglecting to mention that their creator was merely twelve. When T.S. receives a call to inform him that he has been awarded the prestigious Baird Fellowship he has to decide whether to come clean or make the trip towards enlightenment and like minds in 'the attic of our nation'. Stuffing a bag full of his equipment (a 26 point itemised list including sparrow skeleton, sextant and 16 packs of cinnamon gum) he absconds and catches the rail-road, hoping to hobo it all the way to the capital.

So we have a (rail)road novel in which the journey is both physical and mental for on his way out of the house T.S. grabs one of his mother's notebooks, only to find when he opens it that it contains not her exhaustive notes on the elusive Tiger Monk beetle but her own fictionalised account of the life of T.S's great-great grandmother, Emma Osterville. His journey becomes a genealogical one as he learns more about this family where it seems that time and again 'a woman of empiricism [had] fallen for a man completely outside her field, a man whose profession was guided not by theories or field data or art but by a sledgehammer.' This book within a book works well for the most part, dragging slightly at one point which Larsen brilliantly anticipates and uses as an opportunity for T.S. to outline the five types of boredom (Anticipatory, Ritual, Monotony, Let-down and Aggressive - in case you wondered).

Larsen knows how to inject fresh energy into his narrative once he finally reaches his destination, not only with the confusions of a country boy dropped in the middle of a city but a raising of the stakes. It will come as no surprise that the real journey he undertakes is to realise that whatever it was he thought he was running away from, it is far preferable to what he has run towards. The book works well because the method of telling is so original and charming, with each page offering the promise of something new and interesting to look at, without it ever feeling gimmicky. Even if innovative illustrations aren't your cup of tea you couldn't ask for a finer travelling companion than Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet.


John Self 10 April 2009 at 00:09  

I'm very interested in this book, not least because I suspect Harvill will have done their usual bang-up job in making it a thing of beauty as a physical object ... but I do dread the presence of whimsy or - even worse - quirkiness, and this book has a smell of quirk about it that I can detect even over the internet. Of course, one man's irritant is another man's charm, but blind prejudice like this seems as good a reason as any to justify not buying it when I am trying to avoid getting new books at the minute anyway.

William Rycroft 10 April 2009 at 07:55  

I know exactly what you mean John but I think there's enough actual content to balance out the quirk-factor. I think you're right about how the book will look of course (having only read a proof I can't say for sure, but even that is a lovely thing - the pictures I have included in the post are black and white but I believe the finished product will be a full blown colour affair). With your consistent positive comments about Harvill's publications are you sure you couldn't convince them to send you a copy gratis?!

John Self 10 April 2009 at 11:24  

I probably could, having a couple of contacts at Random House, but it's not a question of money, but of simply having too many books to read. It has got to the stage now where I actually feel anxious at the thought of more books coming into the house, and am teetering on the brink of reading books just to get through them, rather than for their own enjoyment - and that way madness lies. So I really need a good break of reading books without acquiring any new ones to ease my distress.

William Rycroft 10 April 2009 at 11:29  

Sounds like you need a long weekend...

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