Friday, May 15, 2009

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

Oh, how I wish I could tell you where I first heard of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. It really was only a week or two ago, and it was on some cartography blog, or another. It may have been here. But I'm sorry, I can't remember, so can't give proper credit. I wrote the title down on a scrap of paper, and two or three days later, my birthday gift card in hand, walked into a bookstore-that-shall-not-be-named and, not seeing the book anywhere, inquired at the information desk.

And the store manager, who happened to be standing right there, and whom I've seen many times before, but have never seen smile, took my slip of paper out of my hand, turned to her employees, grinned a big grin, waved the paper around in the air and said, "See! What did I tell you!" then turned to me and said, "I just know this book is going to be big."

It is big. It is extra wide, to make room for a delightful assortment of notes and illustrations on the side. And it is big in scope, rambling and bouncing along from Montana to Washington, D.C.

And it's big in... I'm not sure how to say this, exactly... big in possibilities. Books are so often self-contained little worlds, but this story hints at so much more that is never even mentioned. It offers a generally expansive feeling that off the edges of the pages, there are people living their lives who, even though they have nothing to do with this particular story, are still connected to a larger story, of which this is only a part, and if I fell into this book and couldn't get back out, I would still be able to create a full life for myself, because there's a big wide world in there.

T.S. Spivet, an obsessive and nerdy 12-year-old who maps everything in his life and is too mature in the way of really smart kids, somehow manages to flatly and critically describe his surroundings and his family members, even while, almost as if he is unaware of it, he conveys a striking amount of compassion and love for his family. It's that subtle emotion - that humanity - that gives this book its charm, even as T.S. heads out on an inexplicable adventure that left me baffled as often as it left me wanting to jump on a train carrying Winnebagos (although I think I would have had more food with me, since I take a granola bar with me to the grocery store) and go on my own adventure.

Baffling and inexplicable because... well, I think you just have to read it to understand what I mean. This is not a book that can be easily summed up or described. It is far from perfect. It is both enchanting and disconcerting. It isn't tidy. It is often vague. The supporting characters, for all that they are thrown together in unique ways and are clearly supposed to be offbeat, often come across as so eccentric that they come full circle to stereotypical. And I was unsatisfied with the ending, which arrived abruptly and jarringly, and left too many questions unanswered.

But the book is filled with a spirit of discovery that makes even the strangest, the saddest, the most unsettling events that happen as T.S. makes his way through his story seem somehow magical. Add to that the illustrations - intriguing maps and diagrams and charts and little asides that add a final dimension of wonder - and this book, for all its flaws and strengths and humanness, is a true marvel.

UPDATE: Here's a review of the book from the Austin American-Statesman. I completely agree with this review, although I'd add one thing. It's still well worth reading.

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