“It is not down in any map; true places never are.”
– Herman Melville, Moby Dick; epigraph to The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen
Melville’s one of those writers who could remain in cultural circulation even if his books stopped selling: that’s how frequently he’s excerpted into bite-sized epigraphs. Yet Larsen’s first novel makes good use of this line from Moby Dick to marry tone, form, and content: the young Spivet, a precocious twelve-year-old cartography whiz, maps out whatever catches his fancy and sets out to cross the country to discover the “actual” world and his place in it.
The “true place” that Melville’s line refers to is Queequeg’s home, Rokovoko/Kokovoko. Ishmael’s anxiety about this particular island parallels certain characteristics of epigraphs in general: both the island and the detached text suggest that a practice of cannibalism may be at work. By an epigraph’s “cannibalism,” I mean its tendency to eat away at the text proper—it introduces or troubles the themes, and it can become central to an understanding of our first encounter with a book by taking a bite out of the guts of the words within.
The strange logic of Melville’s words comes into focus through Larsen’s novel. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is not just the story of an amateur cartographer; its pages are filled with printed marginalia of maps, diagrams, and field notes. I’m a fan of paratext like this, and the epigraph is probably the grandparent to the murky boundaries between the content and not-quite-content sandwiched by a book’s front and back covers. The spatial-minded epigraph and text in Larsen’s book point toward an epigraph’s position in readerly habits and attitudes. Where, exactly, do we position an epigraph? Is it a “true place” in the larger work?
These concerns remain hotly contested. The place of the epigraph in literature has come under pressure lately, though this “un-locatable” position makes it all the more fascinating. As the epicenter of paratext, the epigraph remains a polarizing feature. It’s everywhere and nowhere, and in some cases it exists safely demarcated from the work at large and at other times it overlays it entirely. To use another example of cartographic cannibalism, an apt epigraph realizes Borges’s fable in “On Exactitude in Science” that “…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province.” Whether it orients or disorients readers, the effect of an epigraph depends on the primacy we give to it: an obligatory intro tucked away before the text; a literary anomaly of obscurity, pedantry, or one-upmanship; or an all-encompassing map to what will follow. It may very well occupy a literary status akin to Rokovoko’s LOST-y island, but the epigraph’s lure of being a true place, however (un)real, seems unlikely to withdraw its invitation to discover how true it can be and what truth it offers.
Jacob Schepers (Calvin ’12) is the author of A Bundle of Careful Compromises (2014), a winner of the 2013 Outriders Poetry Project competition. His poetry has appeared in Verse, The Common, PANK, The Destroyer, and others. He lives in South Bend, IN, with his wife, Charis, and two sons, Liam and Oliver. He is both an MFA student and doctoral candidate in English at the University of Notre Dame.