The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet: A Novel by Reif Larsen (New York: Penguin Books, 2009. 400 pp)
Reif Larsen studied at Brown University and has taught at Columbia University, where he earned an M.F.A. in fiction. His debut novel, The Selected Work of T.S. Spivet was a 2010 Montana Honor Book, an IndieBound Award Finalist, and on the shortlist for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Mr. Larsen is also a filmmaker specializing in documentaries.
You Gonna Diagram That?
Presentations represent a core deliverable at my work. In these decks, illustrations are key. More often than not, I draft the deck in full sentences and then consider ways in which to illustrate the point.
Our minds are visual. We tend to internalize truth through what we see. Why else is a picture worth 1,000 words?
Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet explores the visual as an avenue toward understanding depression, renewal, and the classic coming-of-age story.
Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet—T.S. for short—lives in remote Montana with his Cowboy-like father and his research-oriented mother. Taking after his academic-minded mother, T.S. maps his world. All of it; all of the time.
“I had been meticulously mapping all of these activities ever since I was eight, as that was the age when my cognition and wisdom each blossomed from that nascent bud of childhood just enough to sufficiently grant me the perspective required to be a cartographer. Not that my mind was fully developed: I would be the first to admit that I was still a child in more than a few facets. Even now I occasionally wet the bed, and I still maintained an irrational fear of porridge. But I firmly believed that drafting maps erased many of the unwarranted beliefs of a child” (32).
The narrative begins with an odd phone call for this 12-year-old boy. A man from the Smithsonian claims T.S. has won the prestigious Baird Award for his mapmaking prowess. Unknown to our boy protagonist, a mentor and friend has submitted his work for the award.
In addition to the year-long fellowship, the award winner must give an acceptance speech in Washington D.C. that coming Thursday.
Unintentionally, the Smithsonian has awarded this honor to a boy, and T.S., very much still a boy, decides to begin a cross-country journey to accept the award.
In the dark of night, he hops on a train heading east. Throughout the trip, the reader dives deeper into the psyche of T.S. We learn about the rifts in his family, the history of the Spivets, and the recent unfortunate death of his younger brother, Layton.
“And then there was my younger brother, Layton Housling Spivet, the only Spivet boy born without the birthname Tecumseh in five generations. But Layton died this past February during an accident with a gun in the barn that no one ever talked about. I was there too, measuring gunshots. I don’t know what went wrong” (11).
In all of these aspects of this novel, the destination is the journey itself.
A highly visual book, Larsen populates the margins of the story with sketches, doodles, maps, and footnotes. In many ways, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is an aesthetic experience. To measure it strictly through its narrative is to ignore a crucial component of the overall picture. The diagrams tell just as much of the story.
Despite the beauty in its aesthetics, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is a straightforward narrative, more or less. In fact, with a large chunk of it occurring on a train, much of the story bounces around to other memories and historical notes about the family, which makes the book feel a little random.
The visuals, however, make the book unique. Much like we write our presentations with diagrams in mind, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet functions as a diagram just as much as it operates as a story.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5