“A novel is a tricky thing to map.” So says the twelve-year-old narrator of Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (2009). Certainly, this book can’t be easily tacked to any of the usual genre categories, although it could be labeled an adventure. It might also be charted as a YA coming-of-age story, or as a travel narrative. New York Times reviewer Ginia Bellafante accurately describes Larsen’s work as “a kind of children’s book version of Roughing It, in geographical reverse.” But T.S.’s Selected Works could also be shelved alongside literary fiction and graphic novels, or even almanacs and nature guides, as other reviewers suggest when drawing comparisons with Nick Bantock’s Griffin & Sabine series, Schott’s Miscellany, and Dave Eggers’ literary journal, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. Tim Adams of The Guardian calls T.S.’s narrative “charming and kooky . . . an attention-deficit Encyclopedia Britannica.”
By constructing his narrative so that it requires nonlinear reconnoitering between its textual body and illustrative marginalia, the youthful Larsen aligns himself with the border-crossing tenets described by the Interstitial Arts Foundation. The Selected Works exemplifies the kind of trans-genre, trans-disciplinary experimentation promoted by the developing movement (Fenkl iv). As Heinz Fenkl explains in the introduction to the first volume of the Foundation’s Interfictions anthology, the term “interstice” combines “the Latin roots ‘inter’ (between) and ‘sistere’ (to stand): literally, “to ‘stand between’ or ‘stand in the middle’” (iii). Theorized by experts and practitioners in numerous essays, made available at the Foundation’s website, the Interstitial Arts encourage multi-modal creativity. These arts aim to “transform the reader’s experience of reading” (Fenkl vi).
Describing themselves as border-crossers, rather than “pissed off genre writers,” these interstitial agents are most comfortable in the region that Gregory Frost labels the “In-Between,” i.e. in that hypnagogic place where “inner landscape and outer landscape can blend,” where fantastic and realistic converge (Kushner; Frost). Not surprisingly, a number of fabulists (like Frost) are advocates of the emerging field—and Angela Carter has been dubbed “the Patron Saint of Interstitial writers” by the Foundation’s co-founder, Delia Sherman. However, interstitial grounds are not exclusive to the authors of fantasy and science fiction. Indeed, Larsen’s novel would probably not be sold by the Science Fiction Book Club although, by the loosest of definitions, it might be classified as a contribution to the genre if only for the running commentary its young protagonist provides on multiple sciences (i.e. all things zoological, geological, and geographical).
While young Spivet describes his attempt to chart Melville’s Moby Dick as a challenging, even frustrating endeavor, readers of Larsen’s novel could experience similar disorientation, despite the map that appears on its title page. Chapter numbers are marked on specific regions of the country to track T.S.’s movements. These signs fail, however, to convey the complicated shifts that occur as the reader follows T.S.’s asides through annotation and illustration that is only marginal on a literal level. Some of the most crucial revelations can be found on the edges of the narrative.
Without doubt, these Selected Works exemplify Sherman’s description of textual borderlands as “interesting places,” that may “be dangerous places to visit or live in,” but can never be accused of being “boring” (“An Introduction”). Such plots can often be “upsetting” to those who thought they knew where they were going, only to find themselves disoriented by shifty geographies (Anderson). Says Fenkl, “Many readers find this state of mind so uncomfortable that they reject works of this nature (often rationalizing their rejection by focusing on some perceived flaw)” (vii). In fact, critics of Larsen’s book tend to complain that reading it requires significant effort. One cannot confine one’s gaze to a left-right orientation. The eye must scrutinize lines and letters all over the page.
Critics also object to divergences from the narrative’s primary plot, in which the protagonist travels cross-country by rail in order to accept a prestigious award for scientific illustrations. Ron Charles of The Washington Post complains of “a big chunk in the middle of the novel [that] is turned over to recounting the contents of a manuscript that T.S. has stolen from his mother,” also of “the whole final quarter of the novel,” which Charles calls “disastrous” and “unforgivably silly.” Larsen’s use of the text-within-the-text technique can hardly be viewed as a radical departure from traditional storytelling. But Charles simply isn’t as interested in the neo-historical foray into the thwarted ambitions of T.S.’s female antecedents, even though the motives for his mother’s collusion in the plot to further the boy’s career cannot truly be understood without this backstory. The intertext reveals a long history of antifeminist bias in the sciences.
While Charles may not appreciate this track, many contemporary readers are likely to enjoy the story of Emma Osterville (T.S.’s great-great-grandmother), simply because they can identify more with the smart but frustrated female character than they can with her pre-adolescent descendant, who spends his time sketching grids and measurements of everything from “leafcutter ant colonies” to “horseshoe crab circulatory systems,” D.C. sewer lines to fast food locations (26, 300, 138). One of T.S.’s ambitions is to someday trace “nineteenth-century footpaths of…fur traders…in relationship to the orientation of major shopping malls” (138).
Charles’s charge of “unforgivable silliness” in the narrative’s closing quarter is more likely to be given credence by a significant number of intelligent readers. Since T.S. has frequently articulated an allegiance to objective, rather than subjective, reckoning, his account of passage through a Midwestern wormhole and induction into a secret society, called the Megatherium Club, may leave the reader feeling as if s/he has been shunted into some alternate universe. Although T.S. worries that his mother’s attempt to recover Emma Osterville’s history must be as unprofitable as her pursuit of a non-existent beetle, because “the data sets are so weak,” the boy seems to slip rather easily into Mulderesque thinking (142). Larsen’s traveler somehow manages to skip the tracks and venture into X-Files territory where, for example, a swarm of swallows manifests in a kind of divine vision shortly after T.S. is attacked by a knife-wielding religious fanatic, and where hobos, chauffeurs, and bathroom attendants reveal themselves as members of a covert organization dedicated “to chart[ing] the Terra Incognita of Existantia” (266-267, 358). The Megatherium Club’s first assignment, after recruiting the boy, involves planting a tiny camera on the President of the United States during a White House meeting as part of an ongoing guerilla performance project called “Eyes Everywhere! Eyes Nowhere” (361). Their stated aim involves “tear[ing] down boundaries that exist in this country to separate the public from the secret machinations of its own government” (362).
By interpolating this subplot, Larsen introduces incongruity into his text, thereby rendering it all the more radical in its interstitiality. Although the interaction of illustration and annotation with the primary plot would still qualify as multimodal, critics would not be able to complain of genre deviance. To be truly interstitial, argues novelist Barth Anderson, art “should be prickly, tricky, ornery”; it must “defy expectations, work against them, and in so doing, maintain a relationship to one or more genres, albeit contentiously.” Such work, according to Anderson, must exhibit a “playful disregard on the interstitial artist’s part, seeking not merely to create something new, but something that jars.”
Larsen’s novel jars, as do a number of other contemporary novels that critics have deemed difficult unto waywardness. Umberto Eco’s fictions, for example, have long exasperated reviewers, as Ellen Kushner says interstitial writers are wont to do, leaving said reviewers to “spend half their ink trying to describe what something isn’t.” The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana: An Illustrated Novel, which appeared in hardback in 2004, could certainly be described as hyper-ornery, even by Eco standards, as its mysteries, unlike those that drive The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, have not been devised to be solved. Tamara Straus complains that Eco’s works tend “to be hard to read not because of their arcane subject matter but because Eco sacrifices plot and character to semiotic digressions.” Says Straus,
It is Eco’s great misfortune as a novelist that he is a polymath fabulist
in the tradition of Swift, Voltaire, Joyce and Borges without their knack
for narrative. One idea or symbol reminds him of a string of others,
causing a kind of encyclopedic domino effect that leaves the narrator
in a state of ecstasy but the reader numb from detail. (“Eco’s Amnesiac Disappears”)
In a more positive review, David Ng of The Village Voice describes The Mysterious Flame as Eco’s “most hypertextual novel to date—a sprawling network of mnemonic associations.”
So extravagantly allusive is this illustrated text, with its reproductions from Italian comic books, postage stamps, cigar boxes, and record covers of the World War II era, it has already inspired the construction of a wiki to annotate its references. That wiki, founded by Eric Katzen, is accessible through The Paradox of Porto Ludovica, a website devoted to the study of Eco’s work. Although the epigraph to the Paradox suggests that “all orientation is impossible” as “the native” of Eco’s “magic space” finds himself in a region “where the directions front back left right are not valid,” its links do attempt to guide the more serious Eco aficionados through his labyrinthine allusions. Comments on a blog site that reviews the annotation project disagree on whether it actually enables readers to “follow myriad references more easily” (Esposito).
What renders the storyline of The Mysterious Flame so disorienting is the fragmentation of its narrator’s stream of consciousness. The challenge that Eco has constructed for himself seems nearly insuperable at the outset. How does one construct a stream-of-consciousness text when one’s stream has been scattered as if by cataclysm into disconnected patches of rainwater? The seismic event that precedes the narrative is never clearly diagnosed, but the reader is given the impression that the “incident” that leaves the narrator with a form of “retrograde amnesia” is some kind of massive stroke (Eco 7). All memory of experiences and the emotions associated with these experiences have been lost. Instead, the narrator, Yambo Bodoni, retains only semantic memories. Formerly a collector and dealer of antique books, Yambo responds to personal questions with answers from previously read texts. For example, when a doctor asks him his name, Yambo guesses “Arthur Gordon Pym,” then “Ishmael,” both famous fictional characters from works by Poe and Melville, respectively (6-7). Significantly, both of these iconic travelers inhabit worlds cobbled from their authors’ extensive reading. Both characters venture into unexplored terrains in their physical environments and both also end in existential disarray at the conclusions of their narratives (Pym aswirl in the maelstrom; Ishmael adrift amid Pequod wreckage). Both situations might be viewed as analogous to Yambo’s psychical condition.
In an attempt to retrieve identity, Yambo sets out on a quest to recover memories by exploring the extensive attics of his childhood residence. Nostalgic artifacts, including schoolbooks, comics, and works of pulp fiction, serve as paper signs (semiotic flotsam and jetsam, perhaps) that allow the amnesiac to attempt to chart his own history. What Eco has crafted is a psychological journey through memorabilia that he admits to owning. The illustrations of The Mysterious Flame have all been lifted from the author’s collection of pop ephemera, gathered to commemorate his own coming-of-age in fascist Italy. Although Yambo is not Umberto, the novel may be read as the author’s most autobiographical fiction to date. And, perhaps because readers who appreciate the novel cannot help but sense the author behind the character’s polymathic erudition, the more positive reviews tend to stress the relative realism in this text, despite the extraordinary strangeness of the protagonist’s medical condition. Indeed, Yambo’s investigations are less dependent on fantastic machinations of mysterious conspirators than are other Eco efforts like Foucault’s Pendulum, which might be viewed as an earlier and smarter version of The Da Vinci Code.
As Thomas Mallon of The New York Times remarks, “This is not so much a novel as a discursive reconstruction of what one surmises to have been the author’s early reading life.” Reviewers of Larsen’s fiction make similar assumptions. Since the author of The Selected Works was only in his twenties at the time of publication, readers cannot help but view him as a wunderkind, or boy genius, demonstrating encyclopedic knowledge and eccentric insight on almost every page. And although Larsen’s novel has yet to inspire its own wiki project, the official website for the “boundary-leaping novel” operates hypertextually, its homepage opening to a shadowbox that contains a variety of artifacts from T.S.’s collections, including a compass, a beetle carcass, a horseshoe, and a taxidermied sparrow. Each object can be clicked to uncover additional images and information. The sparrow, for example, leads to annotations on living species mentioned if only in passing in the book. Background on the megatharium, or prehistoric ground sloth, segues into the true history of the nineteenth-century club of young scientists that named itself after this animal. Though the site remains a work-in-progress, visitors are likely to find their foray roughly equivalent to a mini-tour through Smithsonian archives. And this design is most appropriate as T.S. delivers his acceptance speech for the Baird Award at the Smithsonian Institution, Baird being a former secretary of that establishment, as well as a supporter of the original Megatheriums.
For T.S., objects operate not only as tools; they also act as talismans, as reminders of his past and protractors of his future. As the boy prepares to train-hop solo across country, he spends “[a]lmost eight hours” packing and unpacking,
map[ping] out all the potential hazards of the journey, all the opportunities
[he] might encounter where [he] could bring out [his] diagramming and
notational devices, all the specimens he might want to collect, all the images,
sounds, smells he might want to capture. (75)
The suitcase is a veritable mixed media assemblage, evincing sheer artistry in its elaborate arrangement of objects. He brings, for example, “four compasses,” “two sextants and one octant,” a “GPS device,” called “Igor,” a “magnifying headpiece,” called “Thomas,” a “Leica M1 and a Maximar folding plate medium-format camera,” “a railroad atlas of the U.S.,” “three granola bars, a bag of Cheerios, two apples, four cookies, and eight carrot sticks,” as well as a “stuffed animal,” called “Tangential the Tortoise,” and a family photograph, in which “[e]veryone is looking in different directions” (79-80). This list is not exhaustive. If T.S. could pack the entire contents of his bedroom, and travel like a turtle with his house on his back, he would.
For T.S., things offer orientation in both external and internal space. Reading through notebooks stolen from his mother’s office just before he runs away in the wee hours of the morning, the boy discovers not only nineteenth-century family history, but also crevices in his parents’ marriage, secret divergences from his mother’s professional trail. In these notebooks, T.S. discovers the words of Orwin Englethorpe, a polymath, scientist, and mentor to Emma Osterville. “You see,” Englethorpe tells his intellectual ward, “I have this little—some might call it a psychological problem of wanting to know a place through its objects, to understand a culture or habitat through all the millions of little interlocking parts.” “Is it possible to collect all the contents of the world?” he wonders (169). This question speaks to the twentieth-century boy’s secret obsessions.
T.S. realizes that his own need to measure and map is an attempt to identify not only “the loci of this place…through scientific observation”; it also involves “spiritual reckoning” (177). In this respect, his quest resembles Yambo’s. Both characters survey external signs in order to traverse internal space. Only T.S. believes that an “invisible map” already exists in each human head. “Were we all born with an awareness of everything?” he wonders.
The slope of every hillock? Every river’s curvature? Did we already know
the radial shading of every single person’s iris, the arborage of crow’s feet
on every elder’s temple, the ridged whorl of thumbprints, of fence lines, of lawns,
and flowerpots, . . . the bloom of exit ramps and superhighways, of the stars and
planets and supernovas and galaxies beyond—did we know the precise location
of all of this but ultimately have no conscious way to access this knowledge? (201)
In other words, T.S. speculates that we have all succumbed to “incidents” like the one that has afflicted Yambo, only we have lost access to data from what might be construed as a collective world mind, an omniscient spirit-database.
The cosmos, like the novel, is a tricky thing to map. And “mapping the imagination,” to borrow a term used by cultural scholars, is truly an ambitious task. J.M. Barrie suggested as much when he wrote of his construction of the island Neverland as a graphic representation of “a child’s mind which is not only confused, but keeps going all the time” (22). Its roads are never more definite than zigzags, its reefs and rivers little more than fitful splashes of color. In such lands, which require legends more flexible than the symbol charts typical of cartography, the adult surveyor is liable to abdicate authority unless, of course, that adult is a designer of imagined environments like Barrie, Eco, or Larsen. When Peter instructs the Darling children on the route to Neverland (“Second to the right, and straight on till morning”), he offers directions not meant to be followable, for “even birds, carrying maps and consulting them at windy corners, could not have sighted it with these instructions. Peter, you see, just said anything that came into his head” (59). Being children, Wendy and her brothers trust in the reliability of their guide, the navigability of their course, and the authenticity of their destination. But as Ken Jennings observes in his recent tribute to compulsive map lovers (or “mapheads”), the inventors of fantastic geographies are generally less interested in plotting credible paths through “swaths of geography” than they are in “creating a texture, showing [readers] around a new world” (121). Such world plotting—and world trotting—requires faith in imagination’s ability to take us across voids to somewhere worth visiting. Similarly, when T.S. crosses the continental “Divide” and Yambo scales what he calls “The Gorge,” these characters traverse interstices, gaps, or, in Larsen’s words, those “narrow space[s] between what is and isn’t” (151). As a member of the Megatherium Club best explains, “[T]here’s a lot that doesn’t show up on maps. And that which does not show up is precisely what we are most interested in” (Larsen 300).
Perhaps we all should be. Stephen Hall explains in an essay in Katherine Harmon’s You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination:
We all travel with many maps, neatly folded and tucked away in the glove
compartment of memory—some of them communal and universal, like our
autonomic familiarity with seasonal constellations and the shape of continents,
and some as particular as the local roads we have each traipsed. . . . There are maps
to anywhere: chromosomes, galaxies, the brain, the cell, the spaces between atoms,
cracks in the double helix, the edge of time. If maps invite travel these new maps
inspire journeys of an altogether different, more associative sort. . . . [T]hey lend
themselves to a form of bushwhacking that is more interior, philosophic, imaginative.
Harmon describes this process of intuitive mapmaking as “creative cartography” (11). And in a book with a title similar to Harmon’s, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, Peter Turchi argues that such mapping is every author’s job. “To ask for a map,” he observes, “is to say, ‘Tell me a story’” (11).
Interstitial art involves all kinds of stories, whether they style themselves as fiction, non-fiction, or even “Autobiofictionalography,” a term used by graphic novelist Lynda Barry to describe her work. While the writings of experimental writers, including Barry, Larsen and Eco, may more obviously perch on the edge of genre, Jeri Kroll reminds us (in an essay published in TEXT: The Journal of Writing and Writing Courses) that research should always teeter or verge, should always “ask questions and allow…others to understand what established pathways researchers have followed to find answers or, indeed, what new methods, tools, and entry points they have discovered to negotiate their way through unexplored terrain” (Abstract). All forms of writing involve “surveying, mapping, even realms that are yet to come” (Deleuze and Guattari, qtd. in Kroll, Abstract). And in a metaphor that seems especially appropriate when discussing T.S.’s Selected Works or Yambo’s Mysterious Flame, Kroll encourages thinkers, writers, and teachers to recognize the text as a form of travel guide that prepares readers “to explore new frontiers [outside and inside] themselves”.
Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan: Peter and Wendy and Peter Pan in Kensington Garden. Ed. Jack Zipes. New York: Penguin, 2004.
Eco, Umberto. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana: An Illustrated Novel. Orlando: Harcourt, 2004.
Fenkl, Heinz Insu. “Introduction.”Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing. Ed. Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss. Boston: Interstitial Arts Foundation, 2007. i-viii.
Hall, Stephen S. “J. Mercator.” in Katherine Harmon. You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination. NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004. 15-19.
Jenkins, Henry. “Introduction: On the Pleasures of Not Belonging.”Interfictions 2: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing.Ed. Delia Sherman and Christopher Barzak. Boston: Interstitial Arts Foundation, 2009. v-xviii.
Jennings, Ken. Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks. New York: Scribner, 2011.
Larsen, Reif. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. NY: Penguin, 2009.
Turchi, Peter. Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2004.
Brenda Mann Hammack is an Associate Professor of English at Fayetteville State University where she serves as Managing Editor of Glint Literary Journal (www.glintliteraryjournal.com). She also leads workshops on fairy tale poetry and magical realist poetry for the Rooster Moans Poetry Cooperative (www.poetrycoop.com). Her first book, Humbug: A Neo-Victorian Fantasy in Verse, was released by Misty Publications in 2013.