Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Problem of Precocious Children and Talking Dogs

A couple of weeks ago I met my cousin for the first time. The kid is 11 years old and smart. Scary smart. Like talking about building robots while absent mindedly solving a rubik's cube with one hand smart. At some point while speaking with him, I felt a bit uneasy. I don't know if it was because I realized that someone quite my junior was schooling me in every subject we spoke about, or if it was the high possibility that he was imagining, with great accuracy, how my brain works as we were chatting (he muttered something about "obvious synaptic sluggishness" which sounded a bit pejorative).

But here's the thing about precocious children: despite their ruse of being tiny adults, they are still kids. One minute you are speaking to them about, oh I don't know... quantum mechanics let's say. So there you are chopping it up about whether or not the cat in the box is alive and the possibility of other dimensions and what have you. And then the kid has ice cream all over his face because even if he's brilliant, he still hasn't mastered the art of eating an ice cream cone without making a mess. That sort of thing only comes with age.

T.S. Spivet, narrator of the aptly named Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, is just such a precocious child. In truth, I'm surprised I liked this story. After Jonathan Safran Foer's overly cloying, "I'm such a clever kid" book, I've been consciously avoiding young protagonists, or more to the point, the parlor trick of having one. The precocious kid is often used like a talking dog (fans of the Family Guy, think Brian). It's a cheap way of making something seem more humorous, shocking, or poignant since it comes from an unexpected source (from the mouths of babes if you will). It's hard to use well, but easy to abuse. This book somehow pulls it off.

So good on you Reif Larsen! Your map-making, train-hopping, 4' 2" scientist felt like a real kid instead of an empty literary convention. Kind of like my cousin even. Too bad the rest of your characters were like T.S.'s drawings: 2 dimensional. Sorry, it had to be said.
posted by jw