“Do you ever get the feeling like you already know the entire contents of the universe somewhere in your head… and you are just spending your entire life figuring out how to access this map?”
— The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet
I have recently taken to watching the birds.
Amateur that I may be, it is a practice I have found rewarding in its simplicity: observe, identify, record. But there is more to it than that: an appreciation being fostered, an awareness that extends far beyond the scope of my own self—of the vastness of the sky, the rolling of the waves, the variations of green in the trees—all coupled with the fact that it is awe-inspiring to witness a creature in such harmony with its environment. All this gives emphasis to the notion that I, with my field guide and binoculars, am just a tiny part of the system in which I exist—a system that appears, at first, to be infinitely complex, but that under scrutiny begins to reveal itself as an assemblage of distinct components, each ripe for exploration.
Suddenly, things seem much more tangible.
It’s in this spirit that I turn to Reif Larsen’s novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, the story of a twelve-year-old mapmaking genius who rides the rails from his home in Montana to the National Mall in Washington D.C. Of course, this is hardly your average road trip, because protagonist T.S. (short for Tecumseh Sparrow) is anything but your average pre-teen, as evidenced by the various maps, charts and other marginalia that fill the pages of this book, pieces of data that quantify everything from the rate with which his father sips whiskey to the possible existence of a wormhole in central Iowa.
Upon receiving a phone call from the Smithsonian Institution informing him that he’s just won the prestigious Baird Award for the popular advancement of science, T.S., who decides not to reveal his age, leaves his family ranch under the cover of night and heads east to deliver his acceptance speech. Armed with a suitcase filled with sextants, octants, heliotropes, a theodolite, his Leatherman (Cartographer’s Edition) and a GPS device named Igor, he soon finds himself on a journey bigger and more bizarre than anything he could have imagined. He befriends a Winnebago, discovers a secret hobo information network, and ponders (and diagrams) the correlation between the length of a pair of short-pants and the hierarchical status of the wearer. Along the way, he meets a colorful cast of supporting characters, including a racist trucker, a crazy preacher, and a washroom attendant with a link to a secret society.
For T.S. though, the trip is more than just a physical one. Hidden away in his luggage is a chapter of Spivet family history he never knew existed, a narrative that details the westward movement of his ancestors and provides him with a greater appreciation of the family he left behind—something that emerges as one of the story’s major themes. While we’re aware of T.S.’s affection for his family—his father T.E., a stoic cowboy from the old school who keeps a shrine to Billy the Kid next to his crucifix; his mother Dr. Claire, a coleopterist whose life’s pursuit is a yet-to-be-discovered species of beetle; and Gracie, his perpetually bored sister—it is only as he distances himself from these people that he begins to understand his relationship to them on a truly emotional level, an understanding that adds to the complexity of his character and stands as one of the book’s real achievements.
After all, Larsen runs a bit of a risk with his young narrator. T.S. has a vocabulary that rivals that of most adults and a keen insight that can be both witty and poignant. Yet capable as he is, he’s still able to maintain a sense of innocence, a kind of wide-eyed wonderment that might feel out of place in an older character. We believe his moments of discovery are genuine, and are therefore willing to go along for the ride.
Another success of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet comes in the form of the aforementioned notes and maps included in the margins. These not only add to the plot by making T.S.’s selection by the Smithsonian a credible one (a number of the diagrams are duplicates of the ones he’s submitted), but also give readers alternate perspectives on his character, bypassing his systematic objectivity to reveal the vulnerability of a boy trying doggedly to make sense of things.
“Do you ever get the feeling,” T.S. wonders, “like you already know the entire contents of the universe somewhere in your head, as if you were born with a complete map of this world already grafted onto the folds of your cerebellum and you are just spending your entire life figuring out how to access this map?” This is a profound question, to be sure, but an inherently elegant one, which challenges us to take a more intricate look at the order of the world around us.