three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
41-July-Aug-2009
By: 
Reif Larsen
user_rating: 
0

A-The Selected Works of T S SpivetReif Larsen, a filmmaker and recent graduate of Brown University, is completing his MFA at Columbia University. Selected Works, which was bought at auction for nearly $1 million following a bidding frenzy, is his first novel.

The Story: When the precocious, eccentric cartographer T.S. (Tecumseh Sparrow) Spivet receives a call from the Smithsonian Institution letting him know that his drawing of the Carabidae brachinus beetle has won the prestigious Baird Award, he gladly accepts. Deciding to keep his young age (12) a secret from the Smithsonian administration, T.S. embarks on a cross-country trip from his family ranch in Montana to Washington, D.C. to give his acceptance speech. What ensues is a wild adventure as T.S. hops a freight train, befriends a Winnebago and truck driver, and proceeds east. All the while he illustrates his journey—from his stops at McDonalds to an interlude in Chicago—and maps out his emotions about his brother’s death, his family’s bizarre ancestry, and his own personal growth.
Penguin. 374 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 1594202176

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"There’s something very poignant about how T.S. slips his insights into the marginalia, as if exposing vulnerability directly would be too intimate or unsettling. He is only a child, after all. This is a book to be read slowly, savored for its digressions and offbeat characters." Carmela Ciuraru

Entertainment Weekly 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is a fascinating experiment. … While Larsen’s narrative isn’t perfect (and feels disjointed in its final third), Spivet is still a mightily impressive debut, a wistful glimpse at that moment when adulthood threatens those last, vital days of youth." Jeremy Medina

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The ambition of this audacious first novel is so extraordinary that it’s easy to forgive Reif Larsen when he doesn’t quite pull it off. … [S]o few of the observations and emotions are contrived in the scrapbook of T.S.’s life that it’s grating when the plot devices are." Steve Duin

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"His guileless asides and antique-looking drawings fill the margins of The Selected Works, mixing the graphic intensity of Nick Bantock’s Griffin & Sabine with the ironic footnotes of Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace. … [But] I can’t remember the last time my initial affection for a novel was so betrayed by its conclusion." Ron Charles

Sunday Times (UK) 2 of 5 Stars
"Not only is young Spivet not ordinary, he’s not easy to believe in, and is given to making observations such as ‘I constantly battled the curious weight of entropy in my tiny bedroom, which was stuffed to the gills with the sediment of a cartographer’s life.’ … Despite plenty of intelligent and often entertaining little perceptions, and the author’s larger perspective on his creation, it still doesn’t quite cut it as adult fiction." Phil Baker

Critical Summary

While critics disagreed about the overall success of Larsen’s debut novel, they concurred that it represents an impressive experiment and a promising start for a young author. Certainly, the format is original—maps, charts, illustrations, sidebars, and large-book format. The "naive-male-prodigy-on-a-mission" (Newsweek) reminded a few reviewers of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003) by Mark Haddon, and Selected Works contains similar charm. However, critics disagreed over T.S.’s characterization—some thought him alluringly childlike, while a few felt he was completely unbelievable. They also commented on the slow section detailing T.S.’s family history and an anticlimactic ending. "It’s safe to say, however, that the sum of his adventures provide a telling road map to Larsen’s future in storytelling" (Oregonian).