Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Book Review #13

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was really excited to see this in the basement of the Brookline Booksmith for just $5. I'd seen it a few months earlier and knew the general story/hype (it's not often that an author gets a 6, let alone 7 figure deal for a book, particularly a first book).

I bought it toward the end of February and read the first 35 pages in a white-heat, captivated by the precocious narrator and his amazing "maps," both of the land, and of the habits of his family member. I particularly loved "Father Drinks Whiskey with a Sensational Degree of Regularity."

I read a few more pages, and then heavy fatigue set in. There were several reasons:

1) The 12 year old narrator is just a little too smart (and perhaps autistic). Don't get me wrong: I love novels with alienated gifted-and-talented narrators, with Hal from Infinite Jest probably taking the cake, but for some reason I just wasn't as convinced by T.S. I could never quite shake the feeling that I was reading the work of an extremely intelligent slightly older person trying to impersonate an extremely intelligent younger person. This wasn't universal throughout the book, sometimes it was totally convincing, but the gaps were disconcerting.

2) T.S.'(s) maps are great and punctuate the book like footnotes. Little arrows stemming from the text indicate to the reader that a map is relevant to a particular section, and while these are initially cute, following all of them can be fatiguing, both on the eyes, and in how they slow down the progress of the plot.

3) While there are plenty of sublime moments, at times the writing seemed to drag on. I was significantly more taken with T.S.' maps, and a part of me wishes that there had been significantly more maps, and significantly fewer words.

Ultimately, I'm torn about how to rate this book. In the program where I teach there's endless debate about how to grade pieces of writing. On the one hand, there's the technical execution crowd: an unoriginal essay may receive a higher grade than a particularly thoughtful one if it demonstrates solid follow through. I more often find myself in the camp that wishes to award higher grades to papers that may not work out perfectly, but make an original argument.

And so it is with this novel. On the one hand I feel it could have been executed better, but on the other it's such an original piece with so many bright moments that I can't help but be kinder in my assessment.

At one point the narrator speculates that true success of a book should be measured in how re-readable it is (or something to that effect). I can't quite imagine wanting to reread this book from start to finish, but over the last month or so since I've finished it I have found myself flipping through to find a particular map, and so I get the impression this is a book that is more likely to rise in my esteem than go down.

This is Reif Larsen's first book. I feel the ending left considerable avenues to continue the story of T.S. Spivet and I'd love to see a sequel in which he enters puberty and perhaps "navigates" his first romance. Regardless, Larsen is an author I'll be looking out for in the future and will, despite reservations about his first book, pounce on his second, particularly if I can find in the bargain bin for $5.

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