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Great in theory, failed in execution.
on September 8, 2012
There's something (good) to be said for a novel that tries to be somewhat experimental. I mean, even if it doesn't end up working quite right, I'm always at least willing to tip my hat to the writer for giving it a try.
This novel falls into that category -- while overall, I think I'd describe it as a bit of a failure, I was intrigued by what Larsen was doing (more on that in a sec), thought it was well-written, and really found myself bonding with the main character, a 12 year-old boy named Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet.
Now for the bad news. This novel is about that boy, who mostly just goes by T.S. and who is obsessed with mapping, graphing, charting, and sketching all the things around him. He draws and intricately annotates everything from the city sewer system to the way his sister shucks corn -- there is nothing too complex or too simple to be mapped out by T.S. It's his way, we soon realize, of creating order in a world that, for him, feels far too random, chaotic, and unpredictable.
As the story begins, a university friend of T.S.'s entomologist mother has submitted several of T.S.'s drawings for an award at the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian has been buying Spivet's work for years, not realizing he's only 12 years old. And when he wins this prestigious award, they call him immediately, asking that he come to Washington, D.C. to accept in person and give a lecture.
At first, T.S. is pretty "No way in HELL" about the whole idea. After all, that would blow his cover -- they'd know he was twelve and probably stop working with him altogether. But when his mother makes him angry one night, he decides enough is enough -- home sucks anyway. He packs up his stuff (including all his cartography tools and "oodles of underwear," plus snacks) and hits the road, stealing, at the very last minute, what he thinks is the notebook containing his mother's life work: scientific details about a new beetle she's discovered.
T.S., having done some mapping in the past about hobo signs, decides his best option for getting across the country is riding the rails. He lucks out in boarding the perfect train for the East -- a train carrying brand new Winnebagos, one of which he stakes out as his home for the ride.
And here's where the story kind of spiraled from wonderful to less so. While riding the train, Spivet finally cracks open his mother's notebook and finds inside a biography she's been writing about his great-grandmother, who was a science geek and artist too. As it turns out, his mother's life work has nothing to do with beetles -- she's been trying to write the story of this woman who had so impressed and inspired her, and it's clear from what she's written that she's hoping T.S. will provide the illustrations, something that both heartens him (his mother does value him!) and makes him terrifically sad (and he's just run away from her!).
When the story in this novel is about T.S. and his journey (physical and emotional), the story is brilliant. His explorations of himself, his family, his work, and the world around him are sharp, energetic, incredible, unique. Getting to know T.S. is a joy -- it's pure joy, plain and simple.
The problem is, the story about his great-grandmother, which ends up consuming a huge chunk of the novel, is both commonplace and out of place. By the middle of the book, which is much, much too long, I started to skim all the sections related to that element, and if I had it to do over, I would likely skip that whole tale completely and not, in fact, feel like I'd missed out on anything too terribly important.
The end of this novel is also extraordinarily weak -- so much so, in fact, that I was stunned it had been written by the same guy. I had to wonder if maybe Larsen had gotten to the end of his own book and gotten bored with it himself. "Oh whatever," he might've said around page 400. "Let's wrap this thing up already." Not a good sign, sir.
The "experimental" part of this novel I mentioned above deals with the marginalia. The margins are packed full of Spivet's art -- his scientific drawings, maps, charts, and heartache (take a close look at anything that has to do with his older, beloved brother, for example, whose death T.S. blames himself for).
While I initially loved this feature -- it's what made me pick this book up in the first place, in fact -- I ended up having the same problem with it that I had with the footnotes in Mark Danielewski's HOUSE OF LEAVES: they became a distraction instead of an enhancement. You can't really skip reading them because they're telling part of the story (or, in the infuriating case of HOUSE OF LEAVES, an entire secondary companion story). But at the same time, reading all the margin notes PLUS the text itself becomes an overwhelming task.
Fewer of these annotations would've greatly strengthened the novel overall and enhanced the marginalia itself. It would've made coming across one of T.S.'s drawings a treat instead of a slog. If only a good editor had gotten their hands on this one, I think it could've been absolutely brilliant. Instead, I'll just say something (good) about it as an experiment in fiction, and hope that Larsen's next book takes it all one step further. Or one step back. Or whatever it is I'm trying to say. You get my drift.
Overall, I'd say it's well worth your time. But when the urge hits to start skimming sections, roll with it.