Imagine a 12 year old genius living on a ranch in Montana. He is a scientist and makes maps of everything from entymology to how to shake hands with God. As you might expect, he is, therefore, predictably weird and socially dysfunctional. Keeping his maps in rigorously colour-coded notebooks, Tecumseh Sparrow (yes this kid is partially named after a bird…..long story but a good one!) Spivet lives a life of documentation, which the reader can literally see as Larsen has peppered the entire novel with T.S’s diagrams and intellectual doodles. There is reading and looking in this one and definitely has the potential to seriously annoy readers who don’t enjoy turning the book upside down, from side to side and generally looking at the thing from every conceivable angle. You really do have to enter into the spirit of seemingly random narrative formatting if you want to give this one a go.
Having a genius child for a protagonist is not, in itself unusual, however, this particular boy is. He is odd, really odd and this is not just reflected in how the story begins (the novel starts with the Smithsonian informing him that he has one a prestigious award for his illustrations, having no idea what age he is. So, he hops on a transcontinental freight train to Washington D.C to collect it), but in his home environment. His father is a taciturn and remote cowboy with no apparent sentimentality (except for his ‘mausoleum’ of Western memorabilia living in his ‘Sett’ng room). His mother, who he (affectionately) calls ‘Dr. Clair’ is a failure of an entymologist who has, for twenty years been hunting a mythical species of beetle and who doesn’t seem to be attached to the world in any real way other than her technical role as T.S’s mother. Gracie, his sister seems to be the only half-way normal one, but you get the feeling that this is only due to the persistent feeling that she is only an extra – a non-speaking role there for prop purposes. We don’t really find out anything about her or who she is as a three dimensional character. For the most part, she seems to be a moody teenager who really seems to be just there.
The real heart of the book, I reckon is the maps. T.S makes maps and this is how he understands the world around him. He documents everything and I really mean everything around him from the topography of his native Montana and the precise method and nature of how Gracie shucks the corn to how one might shake hands with God. There are diagrams everywhere in this novel (literally – they could be at the side of the page somewhat annoyingly linked through broken lines to a specific sentence or they could be in the middle of the page and relating to a previous one). This is part of what makes the novel so interesting. It’s because the novel reads both as a novel and some kind of trendy text – book. The story really does wander (just like a weird kid’s brain actually) from point to tangent and not necessarily back again to where you started.
To be honest, when I began reading at first, I didn’t really expect to get very far. I get bored of a book really easily and the irritating placement of maps, diagrams and sidenotes all over the shop made for a bad start. I expected the actual story to get lost in this over-complicated plan of versimilltude (not being a curious young genius boy, I couldn’t really be expected to persist with this doodle fest could I?). But persist I kind of had to, given that much of the key story elements were contained within these little tangents. More often than not, they are the only real nuggets of information that give depth to what can sometimes be an over-literal and hyper earnest narrative.
Despite what looked to be over-egging the pudding at first turned out to be one of the best reads I had encountered for a long while. This is because, simply put, the story is seriously good. This is not just because the kid is weird and ‘empirical’ but because he is a self-confessed kid. He is not practical or realistic and he really does not know what to do with the confusing and contradictory world of adults, who he quickly discovers, lie and behave in ways he just doesn’t understand (T.S’s diagram of the ‘Components of the “thanks, Please Leave” Smile Grimace’ is hilarious and crushingly accurate) He is lonely and wants his parents to not only recognise his talents, but to actually love and show affection for him: ‘he glanced at the maps on the floor, stooping down once or twice to get a closer look. It was more credence than he normally gave to any of my projects, and my pulse started to pound in my neck as he shifted from one foot to the other, rubbing the back of his hand against his cheek, looking […….] “Bulshit”, he said’. He feels responsible for almost everything that goes wrong, from his father’s alienating lack of affection to his mother’s scientific failure, his brother’s accidental death and global warming. These maps are not just to show off but to actually translate and solve the world around him. Otherwise he would really be lost, in more ways than one. All in all, the novel works. The mix of the empirically rational :‘These few criteria might have been all well and good for a poet, but what about for an empiricist like me? Where, really was that magical line where the promise of the West began and the smugness of the East ended?’, and the unapologetic sentimentality of a lost and grief-stricken boy who is wide-eyed with wonder but who really doesn’t have a clue how to cope with things he doesn’t understand other than to physically try to draw them.