10th Jan 2012
on Sara Levine’s thing for Robert Louis Stevenson.
Europa Editions, December 2011. 172 pp.
There are times in life when one’s hand moves, with the autonomous drive of a divining rod, toward a book that is the very thing needed at that precise moment. Needed for what? Needed, one learns within a page or two, to be The Source, the new idea, the clear, firm, blessedly wakening voice that can save you. This is the choice made by the unnamed female narrator of Treasure Island!!!, a novel that chases with a high-held lantern its unpunctuated namesake, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The first novel by seasoned short-fiction writer Sara Levine, Treasure Island!!! offers a wild, funny, rambunctiously surprising look at what happens when the very thing needed to shake up a life does its job far too well.
When a trip to the library allows her searching grip to land on the spine of Treasure Island (“It’s classic. The gold letters say so.”), our girl is hopeless, hapless, and, at twenty-five, burrowing weakly into the sandy soil of postcollegiate living. Through TI, as the locals call the buccaneer-themed Las Vegas casino of the same name, the narrator discovers a way out of the doldrums and into a white-water adventure. Intrinsically, this isn’t a bad impulse, self-diagnosing and then medicating through fiction. Nonetheless, we are soon reminded to use even the mildest drugs with caution. So many of us know, or have been, more prosaic versions of the narrator. Her George Saunders-esque job — as a assistant at a “pet library” (rent a hamster for the weekend!) run by the brittle, and surprisingly fashionable, Nancy — is a composite cartoon of all such absurd first jobs for English majors. The boyfriend, Lars, is an equally anemic toiler in the fields of commerce. (To quote Gang of Four, “To have ambition was my ambition.”) Tech support. You know that guy. If this girl and that guy are in love, their love is not of the sweetest stripe. They trade the barbs of the disjointed. “Lars, would you know a great book if it hit you in the ass with its registration papers?” says the girl. “Piracy and the expansion of the nineteenth-century nation-state … I’ll talk for twenty minutes and then turn it over to you and Jimbo,” says the boy. While the narrator stews over Lars’s failure to connect over the book, he says, “Let’s order two flans.” Not exactly the kind of line a girl might expect to hear from Stevenson’s more thrilling pirate captain, Flint.
With or without flan, the narrator pushes the template of Treasure Island down the throats of everyone in her life, her sister and parents, her boss, her best friend, and the small band of characters she meets along her quest for adventure. They ask the central question: Why Treasure Island? “Isn’t Treasure Island,” the other voices in the novel cry, “a boy’s book?” Not only is TI a boy’s book, it is the boy’s book. It is the ur-text for the boyish fantasy mind, much as Anne of Green Gables or Little House on the Prairie inflame the incipient imaginations of girls. TI is also the source material for the pirate iconography that has become so steadfast a part of our culture that a trip through the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World or, for purists, Disneyland, is on a par with visiting Mount Rushmore. Actually, it is more important than visiting Mount Rushmore. Come on, everybody sing! “Yo ho ho, it’s a pirate’s life for me!”
Levine’s pairing of the ungirly, unsentimental narrator with an action narrative is supported through the speaker’s bone-dry patter. Even if the people around the narrator don’t understand, we know why she picked this particular text to be her personal Upanishads. It’s tough and challenging. Treasure Island suffers no sissies. It also doesn’t dawdle. In fact, the tension created in the narrator’s life by this idiosyncratic choice gives the novel a pleasing gust to carry it along. All the same, “why, why, why Treasure Island?” is the constant refrain from the chorus as the narrator beats a drum no one else can hear. As her sister, Adrianna, says angrily, “I hate books that don’t have any girls in them!”
Perhaps Adrianna’s antipathy has something to do with the element lacking in Treasure Island besides women: interiority. Stevenson’s fat yarn is all action, one long fired musket and rotissieried goat after another. Similarly, Treasure Island!!! follows suit with a series of events that roll like a high sea without floating too long in internal monologues. In both novels, long sojourns into the psyche are not present, unless, in the case of the former, staving off the DTs counts. These are books about action: taking it, causing it, reeling away from it, and then diving back into it as life’s high and low tides wash by. So many male narratives are fueled by frozenness: Benjamin Kunkel’s vacillator’s paradise, Indecision, comes to mind. For that matter, so does Melville’s power chord of a novella, Bartleby the Scrivener. How great a stir can be caused by sitting still?
Yet here we have a woman who does not sit still. She may appear male in many of her attitudes (no tears shed over that fractured relationship!!), and she can say that she sports a woman’s motivations (my mother thinks I’m a failure!!), but she is truly neither sex. I would even go so far as to say that it is the omnipresent tension between the traditional female and the appealing male that animates Levine’s vision. Though she says she “felt big with book, the way a woman feels big with child,” our protagonist is no Little Woman, and little in the Austen-Brontë canon would have yielded the chaos that is ignited by her pledge to follow the “core values” of the thrill seeker’s blueprint for high adventure. It seems that only a certain kind of trouble will do. Cultivating stillness while others act, à la Mansfield Park, simply won’t work for most people, or certainly not for Treasure Island!!!’s narrator.
Riot she does, and from the moment she begins to appraise her situation through the wildly distorted prism of Stevenson’s four agreements (of Boldness, Resolution, Independence, and Horn-Blowing), gales blow hard across her bow. The narrator does so many awful things all in the name of such virtues that those traits begin to distort before our eyes. Stevenson’s Jim evinces a boldness that is life saving. Our Jim’s boldness is a kind of emotional vandalism. Is it boldness when you ride roughshod over your ungainly sister’s first big romance? There’s swashbuckling stabbing and there is regular old backstabbing.
Nowhere are the so-called heroic deeds more comic and painful than when, self-deprived of home and livelihood, Jim-Girl moves back in with her parents, joining her sister, who has also moved home, in a competition for Most Disgraced Daughter. With our adventuress installed in a rambling ranch-style house, rather than on the bounding main, she begins to churn the waters within. The story eddies into a piercing family drama, in which its undercurrents of sadness and regret can finally rise to the surface.
Reading Treasure Island!!! I was reminded of Conrad Hensley, Tom Wolfe’s jail-breaking solider for justice from 1998’s A Man in Full. While in prison Conrad requests a copy of the novel The Stoics’ Game and is given instead a copy of The Stoics, through which he discovers the writings of Epictetus and the notion that “the spark of Zeus” fuels Conrad’s free will and propels him to freedom. These devices are not props. In life, we do look to such random gifts. But the choices are almost always inscrutable to the outsider. One friend of mine spent his twenties following the dictums handed out by none other than David Niven in his autobiography The Moon’s a Balloon. Another friend, for a time, pinned his decisions to those urged by Robert Tressell’s socialist call to arms, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists (as well as to the lyrics of the song “Start!” by the Jam). The confluence of need and tract is often inadvertent. One doesn’t know one is seeking until one finds. The thing lands in our lap and, there it is, a raft off the desert island. Suddenly, the book talks to us outside of its own lines and we feel chosen by it, the twist of fate that delivered The Message just in the nick of time.
Indeed, Treasure Island may not be a model for optimal behavior, but Treasure Island!!! succeeds amply as a cautionary tale. In choosing to live according to the tenets of a single work of fiction, one is shown how disastrous it can be to live according to the tenets of a single work of fiction. But, oh, but, looking to literature for answers to life’s questions is one of its most rewarding services, and its greatest comfort. The novel in particular is the place where we can watch the full arc of (usually poor) decisions play out, schooling us on what can happen when we are, say, tempted to meddle in our husband’s business affairs (The Mill on the Floss), murder the local pawnbroker for her money, or marry a dull provincial doctor. Safe behind the bulletproof glass we sit, observing human nature as it trips over itself, too clever by half or dismally blind.
Book as lamp, book as staff, book as topographical map, or in the case of Treasure Island!!!, book as hand grenade, all point to the thing it is easy to forget when regarding book as object. The pages are the representation of experience, that ephemeral, gossamer material. Someone has gone before and left a trail. Someone has left a map, and the map has a big red X where the treasure is buried.
Alison Powell lives in Tampa, where she is heading the literary wing of the Oxford Exchange (opening Summer 2012). She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and likes the singing of Keith Carradine.