|Author Reif Larsen|
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet tells the story of the eponymous protagonist, a twelve year old genius mapmaker who lives on his parents’ ranch in Montana. Life with his tight-lipped cowboy father and scientist mother Dr. Clair would not be so lonely if he had a brother. But Tecumseh’s brother Layton is dead and he can’t help but feel responsible for his part in the tragedy. His sister Gracie is unburdened by genius and therefore remains alien to him; his isolation is acute. Tecumseh withdraws from his moments of emotional turmoil by drawing maps, seeking through this introspective endeavour to escape the emotional chaos without. The mapping that began as a hobby now seems more akin to a survival strategy.
Tecumseh draws maps of everything, from the orientation of the Coppertop Ranch in Montana and the Washinton D.C sewer system in 1959 to the flight paths of bats around his house and his sister Gracie’s movements as she shucks corn. Cartography is his primary interest, but it becomes clear that his expertise extends to anatomy, entomology and Native American folklore, among other pursuits. It is Tecumseh’s intricate diagram of the bombardier beetle that will draw him into an adventure that takes him across America to find his destiny.
If the criterion for measuring prodigies is a child under eighteen years performing at the level of a highly trained adult in a demanding field of endeavour, then Spivet clearly fits the bill. The quality of his mapmaking is such that he has been awarded a prestigious scientific prize by the Smithsonian Institute. The catch - they have no idea that he is only twelve years old. Faced with the preposterousness of the situation Tecsumeh is forced to re-evaluate his liminal positioning between the world of childhood and adulthood:
I didn’t often remember that I was twelve years old. Life was too busy to dwell on things like age, but at this moment, faced with a great misunderstanding fabricated by grown-ups, I suddenly felt the full weight of my youth, painfully and acutely.
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet deploys the common literary trope of the isolated genius. This is an idea that has been supported by the testimony of many gifted individuals. As German theoretical physicist Albert Einstein once said, “[i]t is strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely.” The isolation of the child genius is doubled. Not only are child geniuses isolated from their peers, but in performing challenging adult activities they are often cut off from the necessary experience of childhood. For Tecumseh, childhood is painful, something he prefers not to dwell upon overly. It also leads to an imbalance, making for an individual remarkably capable in certain aspects of existence, while retaining the innocence and vulnerability of youth in others.
This is an unusual book too in terms of its extensive use of illustrations as Tecumseh’s maps, footnotes and diagrams line the margins, encouraging the reader to twist the book this way and that in order to take it all in. At times, this extensive mapping feels laboured, particularly as the central storyline lags somewhat in the mid-section. However, it is visually delightful, bringing to mind the visual inventiveness of Nick Bantock’s Griffin & Sabine trilogy or the labyrinthine interactivity of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves.