This book first crossed my path at work a few months ago, when I had to write some promotional copy about it. The cover was striking; teal set off by gold embossing and contrasted against black, silhouetted sparrows, it roused my curiosity. But the novel’s weird name combined with the blurb describing it as about a 12-year-old mapmaker put me off, it struck me as possibly enjoyable, but equally likely to be tedious and dull. Weird book names seem to do that to me, I had a similar reaction to Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl prior to knowing anything about it. I actually remember looking at it in a store and thinking, “who’d be interested in that?” A few months later I picked it up and couldn’t put it down again.
But Emily pushed me from uncertainty into book lust when she posted a rave review of it in May. I’m such a sheep when it comes to reading, it’s so time consuming that often I’m not interested in something unless I know someone who liked it.
The first thing readers will notice about The Selected Works is its innovative design, it contains extensive margin notes, which are often beautifully written and include intricate illustrations and maps. At times the margins contain major plot points so it’s important readers persevere with them. It was a bit difficult to get into the habit of reading the notes at first, but I soon got the hang of it and quite liked their inclusion in the novel.
I absolutely devoured the first part of The Selected Works, in which T.S is at home on his ranch in Montana. Most of all I think I loved the contrast between quirky, nerdy T.S and his tough-as-nails, reticent, cowboy Father who just doesn’t understand him. The conflict between their two utterly different characters has been exacerbated by the death of T.S’ brother; it’s indicated early on that he died in mysterious circumstances involving T.S somehow. T.S and Father are beautifully drawn characters. Words from Father are rare but Larson manages to bring him to life, through his physical characteristics; his half-cocked, once broken pinky, his leathery smell, T.S’ perspective on his personality; introspective, at times cold, and his love of the wild west; embodied in “The Sett’ng Room”; a shrine to the wild west full of dark leather furniture, classic western movies, and Indian horse-hair rugs. I adored “The Sett’ng Room”, this is one of my favourite passages about it, since it’s quite long I’ve put the best bit in bold:
“Layton used to think the Sett’ng Room was the greatest thing since grilled cheese. After church on Sundays, Father and he would sit together all afternoon watching Westerns that played continuously on the TV in the southeast corner of the room. Behind the set there was a vast yet carefully selected library of VHS tapes. Red River, Stage Coach, The Searchers, Ride The High Country, My Darling Clementine, Who Shot Liberty Valance?, Monte Walsh, The Treasure of the Sierre Madre – I was not an active watcher like Father and Layton, but I had been exposed to these films so many times through osmosis, they felt less like feats of cinema and more like my most intimate recurring dreams. I often returned home from school to the muted rattle of guns or the sweaty canter of hooves on this strange television, Father’s version of the eternal flame. He was too busy to watch it during the middle of the day, but I think he took comfort in knowing that it was on in here while he was out there.”
T.S is an equally wonderful character. The book is told in first person from his perspective, and by using T.S’ point of view Larson manages to present the world from the highly intelligent, analytical view of a talented mapmaker, but with all the innocence and naivety of a child. I think it’s quite a feat that he’s pulled that off so well as in my experience it’s very unique to this book.
Larson’s writing is yet another factor that made The Selected Works a joy to read, it’s so poetic that it’s really hard to choose just one quote to illustrate it’s fabulousness. But this paragraph really struck me as great writing:
“We pounded along, my father’s hand on top of the wheel, his weak pinky cocked slightly upward. I watched the bats crackle and plunge against the sky. Such light things. Theirs was a world of reflection and deflection, of constant conversation with surface and solid. It was a life I could not endure: they never knew they were here; they only knew the echo of there.”
But as the novel progressed it became increasingly different to my expectations. It became more surreal, to me anyway. (Beware, some spoilers start here) I’m not sure how I feel about the direction the book took once T.S arrives in Washington. The deranged hobo stabbing him, the secret society, and a whole lot of other plot points threw me. Admittedly it was never a realistic plot in the first place, but it seemed to merge further into fantasy as it went along. I didn’t dislike it, but I didn’t love it. Not as much as when it was set in Montana. I think I also really missed the counterpoint of Father and the ranch to balance out T.S’ quirky character.
But never-the-less The Selected Works is a highly imaginative, enjoyable, debut novel from Larson and I’d definitely recommend it. It’s one of the most interesting reading experiences I’ve had this year.