There’s something strange, or at least unusual, about finishing every chapter—ever scene, even—of a novel, thinking, “What a nutcase this narrator is!” and still really, thoroughly enjoying it. Enjoying the train wreck, I suppose. But in such a vivacious way! Treasure Island!!! really deserves its three exclamation points.
I had been excited to read Sara Levine’s latest novel back when it came out, largely because of the connection to Robert Louis Stevenson, and with the pretty safe blessing of the Europa Editions imprint. Of course, it’s taken me ten long months to do so, only partly justified by my desire to read the “real” Treasure Island first. And part of the great fun of Treasure Island!!! is that it adopts so much of the joy of reading this “boy’s book,” denounces the idea that a woman shouldn’t enjoy such a “boy’s book,” and simply frolics in the delight of a character like Jim Hawkins, intrepid boy treasure-hunter and adventurer.
Of course, it’s entirely possible to take that delight a bit too far, as we quickly realize the narrator is beginning to do. For the unnamed narrator, the novel quickly becomes “the golden compass I had made for my new life,” complete with a record, “carefully hand-lettered in a serifed style on a creamy seventy-pound piece of paper with a lovely deckled edge,” of what she decides are “the Core Values of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island:
When her best friend asks her, quietly, whether she has been taking her Zoloft, we may start to wonder just how precarious things will get. But I defy you to predict what can come of what, for many readers, seems so natural and good: taking lessons from books and characters we admire and trying to apply them to our own lives.
Levine’s novel is a manic ride through a very extreme version of such a practice. Treasure Island is the only book the narrator reads. She’s quickly able to quote from it to fit any occasion (that “fit” is, of course, often quite loose), and knows the chapter number and title of each item she brings up. BOLDNESS quickly turns into stealing; RESOLUTION into job-quitting; INDEPENDENCE into its exact opposite; and HORN-BLOWING—well, she doesn’t have much of a problem with that, but the people around her don’t exactly find it pleasant, and she has no interest in reciprocal candor from others. The sympathy we feel for her natural desire to break out from a quiet, normal, not particularly interesting or successful life is tested as we see just what these Core Values translate into in practice. Bad choice after bad choice, hurtful action after hurtful action, we must witness the narrator mounted on a high horse of self-righteousness that continues to gain some measure of sympathy (after all, Treasure Island is a lovely book, and it’s a crying shame her friends and family won’t simply read it so they can discuss it with her and perhaps avert the mania that will develop).
Eventually, this behavior lands her back at her parents’ house, once her boyfriend’s exasperation has reached its maximum, and the return of this single-minded, self-centered, socially inept woman to her parents and younger sister instigate some surprising and meaningful family developments. But the dark side of her behavior becomes ever more desperate and appalling, in a way that only loved ones can really confront. Her younger sister delivers the stinging home truth:
“I’m getting sad for you now, I really am,” she told me, a lowering shadow over her face. “You get inspired by stories about sailing the high seas, but you’re like a dead goldfish, floating belly-up in the tank. It’s pathetic! Ever since you read the damn book, you’ve been gearing up to do something, right? Well, do something, sister! Take a risk! Go somewhere! Get a job! Try loving somebody—for real, I mean, not just house-playing! There are all kinds of ways to have a life, but you’re the only person I know who thinks she’s risking something when she gets out of bed and thinks, do I have toast or cereal? Cereal someone else paid for!”
It’s going to take a bit for this to sink in, but I’m left with hope for our poor, addled narrator to break out of the rut she has dug for us, and pretty excited by Levine’s ability to drive us from ripping comedy to manic desperation to genuine family problems to, ultimately, a way to maybe find “how to have a life.”