Friday, February 20, 2009

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet
by Reif Larsen (Review)

"Do you ever get the feeling like you already know the entire contents of the universe somewhere inside of your head, as if you were born with a complete map of this world already grafted onto the folds of your cerebellum and you are just spending your entire life figuring out how to access this map?"

My ARC of SpivetIt seems that too often we label intelligent children "precocious" when we are really just frightened by the fact that they are smarter than we are. In fiction, child narrators often get a bad rep because their narrative voice seems too adult, too intelligent for someone so young, not allowing us to accept that they would think or speak in such an unchildlike manner. First person narration with a child character is notoriously difficult to succeed with, because of our very adult, preconceived notions about how we think at young ages. The quote above is from the 12-year old narrator of Reif Larsen's debut novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. At a second glance, it is a rather childlike perception of the world - and that's where the magic lies within this astounding novel.

Twelve year old genius cartographer, Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet lives on a ranch in Montana with his family - to his young eyes, his mother is a floundering entomologist and his father is an unloving, gritty rancher. Ever since his younger brother died tragically the summer before, T.S. feels as if his parents do not care whether he's present or not, and he retreats into the mapping of his world. Larsen delivers this revelation concerning T.S.'s family quite subtly - his mother casually ignores him, being engrossed in her research, and his father is a rancher, while T.S. is a scientist - there's not much common ground there. There is no heavy hand here, no "mommy and daddy don't love me" moment, but rather a palpable distancing that T.S. experiences, resulting in his creation of an alternate sense of reality. He spends every waking hour mapping the world around him. Not maps in the traditional cartographic sense, but rather he creates elaborate diagrams and illustrations of every object, experience, and thought that he deems important enough to put down on paper. An elaborate diagram of a "Freight Train as a Sound Sandwich", the history of 20th century, mapped according to 12-year old boys eating Honey Nut Cheerios, the structure of the Bailey train yards in Nebraska. The scientific drawings he does for a professor friend at Montana State are so accurate and so beautifully rendered, that the professor sends them off to "the attic of our nation", the Smithsonian in Washington, without T.S.'s knowledge. When the museum awards T.S. the distinguished Baird fellowship, without knowing that he is only in junior high, T.S. debates whether to accept his new life or to continue in anonymity on the ranch. In light of his parental ignorance, he decides to slip off under cover of darkness, hop a freight train, and make his way across the country, on his own, to accept his award in D.C.

Reif LarsenOn the road - as this is essentially a "road novel" - T.S., of course, gradually learns more about the family he left behind once out of their orbit, and realizes how important that truly is when faced with the world at large. Just before leaving, he steals one of his mother's scientific journals from her study - "...but I wanted a piece of her to bring with me! Yes, I do not deny it: children are selfish little creatures." But after opening the journal, he learns that it is not scientific in nature, but rather a fictionalized account, written by his mother, of the life of his great-great grandmother, Emma, a pioneering 19th-century geologist. Oh, the importance of family - more important that scientific data journals! It comes as a shock to T.S. that his mother has been spending more time on Emma than on the search for the tiger monk beetle in the prairies of Montana.

"Okay", you say, "I get it. Little smart boy runs away for greener intellectual pastures only to realize that what he is leaving behind is better than he thought." Sounds like a fairly standard child narrator book. The difference is in Reif Larsen's delivery system for this tale, which is quite unlike anything I have ever read. As T.S. is a cartographer - a very visually oriented young man - his maps need to be included in his story in order for that story to be fully told or understood. So, intermixed with T.S.'s narrative are diagrammatical footnotes in the margins as a sort of illustration of whatever T.S. sees or thinks about. When confronted by a bible-thumping hobo, T.S. illustrates the man's terrifying features under the journal heading, "Fear is the Sum of Many Sensory Details". He has never seen a car with spinning rims before - "The Car With Black Windows That Drove Backwards While Traveling Forwards". The added element of these illustrations creates an entirely different book - one that transcends mere novel and becomes a visual, physical mapping of a story. A novel as art, if you will - in a more literal sense. T.S.'s humor, naivete, and intelligence become remarkably magnified through his maps. Everything he experiences becomes heightened and the writing takes on a more evocative air when coupled with these remarkable additions. How could there possibly be another novel this year that is more of a complete package than this? I was left stunned by it's brilliance and humbled by Larsen's talent.

As a reader, I relish those books that challenge my perceptions of what a novel is meant to be. We think that there are rules for narration - and there are, don't get me wrong - but these rules, in the hands of talented, imaginative authors, can be bent in order to create something truly original and groundbreaking. Jorge Luis Borges (Labyrinths), Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio), and David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas). As of this writing, I am mired in Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler - these are all novels which bend the rules of fiction to the point of breaking, only to allow the narration to snap back to relative conformity. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet certainly falls within their ranks quite easily, if for slightly different reasons. Spivet is firmly linear, unlike Mitchell and Calvino, but it's labyrinthine structure lies within the play between the text and the illustrations, re-training the reader's brain to comprehend both without missing a beat. To force a reader to alter the way that they read is not something to be taken lightly - only in the hands of an author operating on another plain of existence could this be achieved. It has a frighteningly brilliant flow to it, fully immersing the reader within T.S.'s world. Once he reaches his destination and begins to ache for home, so too do you ache for him to feel that warm parental embrace. It is a difficult thing for an author to convey emotive qualities in his/her characters to a point where we actually believe what we say about them once we're disengaged from the page. We throw around these ideas of feelings and emotions, but how often are we really, truly emotionally invested in a fictional character's well-being? Not often enough, I say. There is a decidedly easy, contemporary feel to Larsen's writing, which some may feel diverts it away from the nearly impenetrable Borges and Calvino, but this is so meticulously crafted and so different than anything else I've ever read, that it should stand the test of time. Something that every author strives for, but so few achieve.

So where do we go from here?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Triple Short-Review Tuesday

Happy Short-Review Tuesday!

The Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay
The premise behind Tremblay’s debut novel, The Little Sleep, held much promise and potential for edgy hilarity – a hard-boiled narcoleptic detective from South Boston – that it seemed destined to either rival Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn in brilliance & originality or just tank phenomenally. The tanking isn’t necessarily phenomenal, but tank it does. Tremblay never really exploits the narcolepsy to it’s full potential - stumbling over it as a narrative device - resulting in an almost complete lack of sympathy for his sleepy private detective, Mark Genevich. Hinting at Mark’s tendency to hallucinate full conversations, but never exploring the element much beyond the novel’s opening sequence and a hastily constructed conclusion, results in a lack-luster, dime-store detective novel. Without the narcolepsy, there’s absolutely nothing interesting about Mark – and he’s a terrible investigator. Really, why would he choose such a profession if he falls asleep all the time? In light of Mark’s lack of any sort of detection ability, the back-story feels sloppy and pasted together – not because of Mark’s lapses in consciousness, but because of poor plot construction. I know it sounds tempting with the narcolepsy, but avoid this one - it will just disappoint.

Sucker Punch by Ray Banks
Banks’ debut novel from 2007, Saturday’s Child, introduced another hard boiled detective character poured from the mold of Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor. Manchester resident Cal Innes is not officially…well, anything, but manages to drive the novel with his own brand of face-punching investigation. In Sucker Punch, Banks delivers flashes of brilliance, but fails to cobble together enough of an interesting overall plotline and instead populates the book with empty shells of characters from other people’s novels. (Anyone not living in England is stiff, wooden, and way too one-dimensional.) Innes is out of prison (a result of events from Saturday's Child) and is tasked with chaperoning a young boxer to Los Angeles for a friend. The opening scenes in Manchester, England are quite good and would fit easily into a Bruen-type canon, but the mid-section of the book just cannot absorb the punches and falls flat. Innes (and Banks, for that matter) is at home in England, not SoCal. The drizzling rain, the smoky pubs, and the thick accents of Manchester suit Innes so well that it seems too early in this blossoming series to take him away from that. This could have been Banks' breakthrough novel with this character, except that he removed him from his comfort zone, thus rendering him ineffective and lost. Upon the novel's conclusion, Innes returns to Manchester and lands in a much more interesting grit-fest - only to have the novel wrap up soon thereafter. I'd rather that had Cal stayed home for all the fun, rather than ending up in the sloppy story he wound up mired in while Stateside. I'm drawn to Cal because of his faults - bad decisions and pain pill addiction mostly - but this is a generally frustrating book. Read it if you enjoyed Banks' first book, as it's good to see Cal again, but skip it if you've haven't. You'll just end up frustrated either way, actually, but there's still hope for further novels.

Nemesis by Jo Nesbo
Jo Nesbo has supplanted Henning Mankell as my favorite Scandinavian mystery author – scandalous, I know. His poorly named protagonist, detective Harry Hole, is much less whiny and plenty edgier than Mankell’s Wallander – drinking & smoking when he shouldn’t, rockin’ the Doc Marten's, & being generally morally ambiguous under the guise of solving crime. When he wakes up to find himself implicated in the murder of an old friend, it’s fun to see how far he’ll go in the name of justice – making deals with gypsy criminals, flying to the Caribbean following "leads", generally upsetting all his superiors. Amidst the complex, racially charged atmosphere of modern Norway, Nesbo expertly brings Harry to life as the next in the long line of great crime noir detectives. Nesbo is a very talented genre writer who throws in enough intelligence and cultural atmosphere to his narrative to put him head and shoulders above the rest. I'm not drawn to Harry like I am to Cal Innes, but he's intelligent and independent enough to drive the story along solo. And he could definitely beat Wallander in a fight.

Friday, February 06, 2009


Just a little bit of work-related excitement for me this week - Warwick's has booked David Benioff for a signing on April 18 for the paperback release of City of Thieves, and, as if that wasn't good enough, we've also booked Ron Carlson for June 2 for the release of his next novel, The Signal. In case anyone has forgotten, City of Thieves was the best book I read in 2008 and Carlson's Five Skies was the best I read in 2007.

I think I'm having a heart attack.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Stephen King Hates Stephenie Meyer

For those of you only getting your internet news from the Book Catapult:
I know that I have promised to never write about Stephen King again, but c'mon, you knew that was never going to be the case. Sometimes he says things that are just..."so choice". In an interview with Brian Truitt from USA Today - posted on "journalist" Lorrie Lynch's blog this week (don't ask me how I first came across this one) the King bashes fellow authors Stephenie Meyer, Dean Koontz, and James Patterson. Hard.

"You’ve got Dean Koontz, who can write like hell. And then sometimes he’s just awful. It varies. James Patterson is a terrible writer but he’s very very successful."

Oh, snap! Well, I can't say I disagree with that assessment of Patterson. (See my old, ranting, crazyman post on King and Patterson.) And although I don't know Dean Koontz from Sue Monk Kidd, what established writer - especially in the genre we're talking about here - doesn't hit and miss from book to book? I've never said that King is a terrible writer - he certainly has found that niche and I'd be a fool to say otherwise, but even within the confines of that niche he has turned out some stinky dead fishes from time to time. (Exhibit A: Cell published in 2006 - people turned into zombies by their cellphones. Not that I read more than the jacket copy.) Even the more literary authors that actually can "write like hell" can't get it right all the time - Jose Saramago, Philip Roth, Garcia-Marquez - all have bombed in recent years. Hell, even the late John Updike had some relative duds, although it's sacrilege to say so these days. (James Patterson, on the other hand, has clearly signed an agreement with Lucifer.) Here's the really juicy part of King's interview though:

"Both Rowling and Meyer, they’re speaking directly to young people. The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good."

Oh dear. First off, doesn't King know better than to bash Stephenie Meyer on the internet? Her people are everywhere - they're even reading this post right now! Furthermore, where does someone who writes pop-lit tripe like King get off criticizing another pop author's skills? Since when is any of this about writing talent? King found his groove, made a boatload of cash, got comfortable, and has been churning out the chum for 30 years - once you sacrifice writing literature for something like horror, you forgo the luxury of literary criticism. Does Paris Hilton criticize Lindsey Lohan's acting talent? Even his book reviews for Entertainment Weekly...wait, need I say more? He gives an "exclusive" interview with USA Today, writes a column for Entertainment Weekly, and still has the balls left over to criticize other popular authors? Case dismissed on the grounds of the plaintiff being a white trash author. Even his bashing of James Patterson needs some perspective in light of his own resume - where does he get off qualifying Patterson as one thing, while considering his own work as something else? Where's that Pulitzer, King? Or the National Book Award? Or the Quill, even? While I don't know if Stephenie Meyer is a good writer or not, I just think that King's comments come off a bit bitter or hard-hearted, considering that she's the hot author where he once was himself. Kettle, Pot. Get over yourself.
In all fairness, King is Pulitzer-worthy compared to Patterson. I couldn't resist adding these opening lines from J.P.'s 1st to Die, just for fun:

It is an unusually warm night in July, but I'm shivering badly as I stand on the substantial gray stone terrace outside my apartment. I'm looking out over glorious San Francisco and I have my service revolver pressed against the side of my temple.

"Goddamn you, God!" I whisper. Quite a sentiment, but appropriate and just, I think.