A Map of the Mind

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

Books Literature Natural World North America Publishing

Asked to explain the furore in the publishing world that led to the North American rights for this debut novel being sold at auction for nearly a million dollars last year, one literary scout offered: “It’s a combination of ‘It’s really good and it’s really cool to look at.'” The ”cool to look at” bit refers to the attractive diagrams, sidebars and footnotes that fill the extra-wide margins of the book. Their presence does make it unique, but this marginalia isn’t a gimmick. It is there because the novel is posing as the memoirs of T. S. Spivet, a boy-genius cartographer who has set himself “the lifelong task of mapping the world in its entirety”. So the marginalia is a demonstration of his mapmaking genius, but, more importantly, of his 12 year old personality. Just as all 12-year-olds can be most revealing of themselves, of their real life, in moments of whimsical parenthesis, so some of the most moving parts of the novel, and those that make T. S. such a memorable protagonist, are in the footnotes. But in and out of the footnotes Larsen’s prose is beautiful and frequently hilarious:

“you could barely see the riders as they danced and moved among the weary cattle, but even when they had disappeared in this sea of dust, you knew that the cowboys were in there somewhere, doing what they were born to do. My father bobbed his head to this performance of horse and earth and man, as if he were watching an old 8mm home movie of his family.”

T. S. has grown up on a ranch in Montana that the prism of childish imagination has furnished with a magical-realist quality reminiscent of Macondo, the fictional hometown of García Marquéz. Layton, his bigger-younger brother, has died shortly before the narrative begins and though the main text is full of loving references to the workaday heroism of this perfect ranch boy, the facts surrounding Layton’s death are confined – fittingly – to the subliminal area of the footnotes. His father, a cowboy “born perhaps one hundred years too late”, was proud of Layton but heartbreakingly rejects T. S.’s attempt to make himself useful with a series of maps on the local irrigation system as “piss in a tin can”. His mother spends her days obsessively studying insects, “seeing the world only in parts, in tiny parts, in the tiniest of parts, in parts that perhaps didn’t exist”. A fellow scientist, she should have been a natural buddy for T. S, but instead an unspoken rivalry between them emerges. T. S. doesn’t fit in on the ranch, and he sends his prodigious work off to be published in various academic journals without his mother’s knowledge.

When he is awarded a fellowship at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, he runs away from home and sets out on a great American journey. The inverse of his forbears who travelled westward as settlers, he leaves the land of his childhood, “the land of myths”, and heads east, to “the land of ideas”. In doing so, he fulfils another American myth: that of the humble country boy who winds his way towards the seat of his nation’s power. But along the way he must puzzle over his brother’s death, the uncertainties of his relationship with his parents and of the incongruous pair’s own relationship – and over the most eloquent questions of science itself. The road is fraught with danger and in times of crisis T. S. has a charming habit of first considering, then wailingly assuming, that he is already dead. But when his mind starts to scamper over the scientific and philosophical ramifications of such a death at such a time, it gives him the strength to carry on: “I still had a speech to deliver in Washington. I had not even finished the Montana Map Series for Mr Benefideo!” 

In the quieter interludes, he reads from a notebook of his mother’s that he stole on impulse before he left, and he discovers that it is not a taxonomic study but an historical novel about their ancestor, a pioneering female scientist. As T. S. reads, so do we, and in this parallel text some of his questions are answered. At one point, he absent-mindedly illustrates something in the margin of his mother’s book and scolds himself for this professional trespass. But then, a few pages later, he encounters a note of hers in the margin that reads, “T. S. will illustrate?”: “She wanted me to illustrate? My eyes filled with tears. I must have somehow already sensed her wish for us to collaborate. To collaborate!” This is the thematic and structural crux of a novel in which truth and love throb at the corners of our eyes, in the margins of life, waiting to be discovered.