Jonathan Coe recently claimed that experimental fiction seemed off the literary map now, but every year throws up a novel or two that takes risks.
Writers like Steven Hall and Jonathan Safran Foer have experimented with layout and, post-W G Sebald, there has been a rash of authors using illustrations. Now comes Reif Larsen's novel, designed like a colour-coded notebook and containing the secret confessions of a 12-year-old cartographer.
Stephen King has compared it with Thomas Pynchon and Mark Twain, although this doesn't quite capture the novel's unique flavour. It's an over-stuffed and often highly entertaining journey through the American west and beyond from an amusingly precocious narrator. Awarded the Baird Award for illustration by the Smithsonian Institution, Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet is invited to fly to Washington to accept a year-long post. Frightened by this invitation into an adult world, he retreats to his maps.
Spivet doesn't just make maps of locations, but also of classic novels such as Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. As soon as he decides to travel to Washington, it becomes clear that they are essential to his thought processes. We understand why Larsen is accentuating Spivet's nostalgia for the Wild West: this is a cowboy book with a pint-size hero. In this modern Western, Spivet takes many forms of transport, from trains to Winnebagos.
For every meeting with a traditional Western character such as an Indian named Two Clouds, there's a stop at McDonald's or similar intrusion from the contemporary world. A less successful second narrative follows Spivet's great-great-grandmother Emma, whom he describes as one of America's first female geologists.
Larsen will go on to great things, but he could do with more focus. Precocious children have been a staple of American fiction since Salinger's Glass family. As entertaining as Spivet is, spending nearly 400 pages in his company was slightly too much for this reader.