A Cartographer's Delight

Reif Larsen Puts Himself on the Map with The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet



With his first novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, Reif Larsen redefines both the map and the novel. "A good map is like a good story," he told the Mercury in a phone interview. "It gives you something to sink your teeth into; it reveals the map maker." Stories and maps have long served as forms of historical documentation, but the utility of most modern maps can make them seem impersonal. In Spivet, Larsen—who was fascinated by National Geographic maps as a kid—has created a new kind of novel in which stories and maps harmoniously combine to tell a surprisingly personal tale.

The novel's main character, T.S. Spivet, is a 12-year-old scientist/cartographer who lives on a Montana ranch and draws exquisite maps of everything from male balding patterns to water tables to insect anatomy. The story follows T.S. on a secret, solo adventure to Washington, DC, where he is to receive an award at the Smithsonian. Unlikely, yes, but not entirely unbelievable, and that's part of the charm.

The experience of reading this book is uniquely satisfying. The writing style, much like its hero, favors the old-fashioned and nostalgic. Though T.S. enjoys current kid-friendly institutions like The Oregon Trail game and McDonald's, his story lingers in history and the age-old contemplation of love and loneliness. Yet what lends this novel such personality is its very contemporary format: along the margins of each page are maps, diagrams, doodles, and side notes connected by arrows to the main body of the story. It's as if the novel itself were one of T.S.'s scientific notebooks. In an age when the Kindle and electronic reading devices are amassing popularity, Spivet is a prime example of the intimacy that a paper book can hold in its pages. Each visual has the feel of a small secret shared between reader and narrator. To hold this oddly square-shaped novel and read about T.S. reading and writing in a notebook maintains a certain continuity. Larsen is aware of this interaction—of what he calls the "the vibe and physical space of the book," as expressed in the book's design. Untrained as an artist, Larsen nonetheless did all the book's artwork himself. At one point, he considered making footnotes of T.S.'s charts and maps, rather than interspersing them among the text, but found it didn't feel right—he wanted to "maintain that airiness" that comes from spontaneous "doodles and sketches [in] the space around text." The end result is a scattering of "satellites" to the novel that give T.S. a depth of character he might not otherwise exude in prose. One might even go so far as to call the whole novel a map of T.S.'s personal history. Though it may be lost in the wake of the innovative visuals, it's this well-written, personal, family history that compels the reader to minutely examine each chart and diagram, and begs the question: Are you reading a map, a novel, or both?

Despite the success of Spivet—publishers clamored for the rights to the book and directors are interested in making the book into a movie—Larsen doesn't plan to feature many images in his upcoming work. "I didn't set out to write a book that was illustrated," he admits. "It just grew out of the story." His next book partially concerns an underground puppeteer, which seems ripe with possibilities. Soon we may be asking: Is it a puppet, a boy, or both?


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