Treasure Island by Sara Levine
The author talks about her debut comic novel.
It’s a cliché that any truly great book should shake its reader, change his or her life in some irrevocable way. As Kafka said, “A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.” The truth is, however, even most great books don’t chip away at our soul seas.
The unnamed narrator of Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! has found such an ax in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a fact that disturbs her friends and family, who find it odd that a 25-year-old woman would be so moved by a book for young boys.
The narrator lands a job at a pet library, a slightly creepy animal shelter that loans out its occupants, and would be a perfect set piece in a Wes Anderson film. After picking up Treasure Island, she decides to adopt what she views as the core values of the book: boldness, resolution, independence and horn-blowing.
Levine, chair of the graduate writing program at the School of the Art Institute, is a tremendously funny writer, and one can’t help but think spending time around all of those grad students must have informed the hilariously self-involved character of the narrator. The conceit of the book is essentially an exercise in narcissism: a memoir of her life after finishing Treasure Island, in which she embarks on her own adventures, which amount to buying a parrot (with money stolen from the pet library) and moving back in with her parents.
It’s rare to find a protagonist so intensely unlikable and yet so entertaining as our 25-year-old narrator. Once hired at the pet library, she immediately starts shirking her duties as though slacking off were her calling. At home, when her sister pleads with her for a little more courtesy, she writes, “[That] happens not to be a Core Value, I reminded her, though recently I had displayed courtesy as I affected not to notice all the incredibly annoying things that went on around me.” Even her dedication to Treasure Island is thin. She recorded 100 note cards of favorite bits of the Stevenson book, but late in the novel, after a family secret is revealed, they mean nothing to her.
As the layers of her family’s quiet domestic life begin to fray and peel, the book maintains its comic thrust even as it sets its sights on something deeper. Though hardly a coming-of-age story—for that, the narrator would need to grow up a little bit more—Treasure Island!!! examines notions of adulthood and one’s sense of self. The narrator’s entire retelling of the story comes across as a defense of her own malaise, yet the very story she tells picks apart her defense. A culminating scene, in which the narrator’s loved ones stage an intervention, comes as a shock to the narrator, but not the reader.
Farcical and phlegmatic, Treasure Island!!! strikes a particular nerve, one exposed in post-collegiate life but not confined to it. Those who’ve suddenly found themselves rudderless, and embarking on ill-planned adventures, will recognize their own delusions laid bare.
Treasure Island!!! is out now.