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A brilliant, boundary-leaping debut novel tracing twelve-year-old genius map maker T.S. Spivet's attempts to understand the ways of the world
When twelve-year-old genius cartographer T.S. Spivet receives an unexpected phone call from the Smithsonian announcing he has won the prestigious Baird Award, life as normal—if you consider mapping family dinner table conversation normal—is interrupted and a wild cross-country adventure begins, taking T.S. from his family ranch just north of Divide, Montana, to the museum’s hallowed halls.
T.S. sets out alone, leaving before dawn with a plan to hop a freight train and hobo east. Once aboard, his adventures step into high gear and he meticulously maps, charts, and illustrates his exploits, documenting mythical wormholes in the Midwest, the urban phenomenon of "rims," and the pleasures of McDonald’s, among other things. We come to see the world through T.S.'s eyes and in his thorough investigation of the outside world he also reveals himself.
As he travels away from the ranch and his family we learn how the journey also brings him closer to home. A secret family history found within his luggage tells the story of T.S.'s ancestors and their long-ago passage west, offering profound insight into the family he left behind and his role within it. As T.S. reads he discovers the sometimes shadowy boundary between fact and fiction and realizes that, for all his analytical rigor, the world around him is a mystery.
All that he has learned is tested when he arrives at the capital to claim his prize and is welcomed into science’s inner circle. For all its shine, fame seems more highly valued than ideas in this new world and friends are hard to find.
T.S.'s trip begins at the Copper Top Ranch and the last known place he stands is Washington, D.C., but his journey's movement is far harder to track: How do you map the delicate lessons learned about family and self? How do you depict how it feels to first venture out on your own? Is there a definitive way to communicate the ebbs and tides of heartbreak, loss, loneliness, love? These are the questions that strike at the core of this very special debut.
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet: The Lost Images
by Reif Larsen
I initially wrote a draft of The Selected Works without any accompanying illustrations. After reaching the end, I still had that tingly feeling that usually means something is missing, and so I thought about it for awhile and realized that in order to really understand T.S., we actually need to see his drawings laid out on the page. T.S. was most comfortable in the exploding diagram or the annotation or the bitchin’ bar graph; this marginal material was where he would often let down his guard and reveal something he wouldn’t otherwise in the main text.
As soon as you include that first image in the margin, however, you've positioned yourself on a slippery slope, as suddenly there's this temptation to illustrate every single detail in the novel. Particularly with a digressive character like T.S., I found that I had to be very selective about what I wanted to show. What is not shown is as important as what is shown. In addition, many of the images in this book are not direct illustrations like might you see in other books—as in, "let me tell you about x and now here is a picture of x." Instead of a direct one-to-one correspondence, there's a satellite-like relationship between the text and the image, a kind of graphical parallelism. T.S. will talk about his suspicion of the adult male and then include a chart of male-pattern baldness, and it is through these somewhat disparate leaps between text and image, between the main story and the marginalia, that we begin to soak in T.S.'s habits of mind.
Sometimes I would include an image and then realize that I could now erase a piece of text, as the image was performing the work of that text, and often performing it in subtler ways. On page 67, for instance, there's a diagram of the patterns of cross–talk at the dinner table. Before this image came along, I had a whole elaborate explanation of T.S.'s difficulties talking to his Father at the head of the table, but this became redundant with the diagram; the visual shows it much more elegantly.
And then there were cases where I put in an image only to figure out after awhile that it just wasn't working. In honor of T.S.'s tendency to categorize everything, I've chosen five of these "lost images," each representative of a different reason for ending up on the cutting-room floor.
Reason 1: NO ROOM!
Image: The Thrushing of Dr. Clair’s Hairbrush (as seen through the keyhole).This was an example of the illustration just not fitting in the margins. We thought a lot about the dimensions of the book—a size that felt novelistic but also allowed for enough width to give the margins breathing room. So a couple of images just got the axe. I like this one, though, and was sad to see it go. I now use it in one of my slideshow/readings.
Reason 2: CUT THE STRING, LOSE THE KITE
Image: Donkey/Dolphin/DogIn an old draft, T.S. fantasized about his impending fame as he rode the freight train out East:
"I took a couple of stereoscopic photos, promising myself that when I got to Washington I would look into the possibility of arranging an exhibit on the eye and stereoscopic vision using the panoramas of the West. The West seemed a good a place as any to point out that our world was in three dimensions. For a brief moment, I was intensely excited again about the possibility of exhibitions like this one; exhibitions on x-ray vision and time travel; the sturdiness of human bones; the intelligence of dogs and dolphins and donkeys."
I wanted to just gesture at one of these imaginary drawings, and I like how in this very seventh-grade bar graph there is no label on the y-axis, just a vague quantification of "intelligence." But the original line was cut... I didn't want T.S. musing about his fame just yet, and so went the vague bar graph. Cut the string, lose the kite.
Reason 3: NOT DOING THE WORK
Image: Newton Notwen, the TurtleIn Chapter 7, T.S. turns to Newton's laws of conservation to help give him some theoretical sturdiness during his cross-country adventure. I originally had a sidebar here about Newton Notwen, T.S.’s unfortunate turtle:
"I still respected Newton immensely even if he did look a little like a child pornographer in his portraits. I had even named my first pet turtle after him: Newton Notwen, a perfect palindrome, because Newton Notwen had a tiny head that looked a lot like his tail if you squinted your eyes. Perhaps because of this reciprocal anatomy, NN died after only a week of living in the kiddie pool on our deck, although it could also have been because Layton shot him."
I made the tough decision to cut this because I thought it was too jokey jokey and wasn't doing enough for the scene.
Reason 4: TOO ILLUSTRATIVE
Image: The Valero Workstation This illustration originally opened chapter 8, but I felt like it was qualitatively different than many of the other drawings in that it was almost too illustrative. It was the kind of illustration you might find in a graphic novel, where images serve a very different purpose of representation. We get the hint of the family photo, but not much else with this, and so I swapped it with the Boredom Box, which is ultimately more engaging, I think.
Reason 5: DULLS THE ACTION
Image: The Dock CleatWhen T.S. has his confrontation with the crazed preacher in Chicago, there’s a very tense moment of action. I originally had this diagram showing how Josiah trips over a dock cleat, but I realized the diagramming of the action actually lessened the stakes of the scene. Better to just give a couple of resonant images of the knife and the birds and then let the reader fill in the rest. The most powerful images are always those elusive mind maps that readers create in their own heads when fully immersed in a piece of literature; nothing on the page can hope to replicate their depth and intimacy.
And of course there were other reasons for cutting drawings: some were just lousy. I will spare you these lost images, however, as they belong in graphical pergatory. T.S. would not have approved, and let me tell you, I've learned a thing or two from Mr. Tecumseh Sparrow.
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