Slow writer Sara Levine reimagines Treasure Island
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Jan. 23, 2012 3:49PM EST
First there was fast food, then came slow food, followed quickly (!) by every imaginable iteration of the theme: slow cities, slow travel, slow schools, even slow cycling. So it was only a matter of time before slow writing seeped upon the scene.
It happened inconspicuously earlier this month when U.S. writer/publisher Alice Sebold took a flyer on an unconventional first novel by Sara Levine, a highly experienced, PhD-qualified teacher who supervises 40 graduate students as chair of the non-fiction writing program at the Art Institute of Chicago.
An expert on the subject of literary style and a lifelong student herself, Levine has until now deliberately restricted her own output to what she calls “piecework” – including aphorisms, a specialty – remaining “very stubborn about just wanting to have my little private apprenticeship.”
And to scrupulously avoid the mistake, as identified by one of her highbrow heroes, William Gass, of “putting another slug in the garden” by publishing too quickly.
As a teacher, the 41-year-old author says over the telephone from Chicago, she struggles to slow overeager students down, demanding they set aside their billowing reams to concentrate on the architecture of the sentence – “things like grammatical suspension, the difference between nouns and verbs, rhythm and sound.” Practising what she preaches, she spent more than 20 years in disciplined preparation before acquiring her first ISBN number with the midwinter publication of a slim paperback novel.
Which has landed with the impact of a howitzer shell in the chick-lit typing pool. Hilarious, fast-paced and exhilarating to the point of nausea, Levine’s Treasure Island!!! is a strikingly original creation that reads like a collaboration between Vladimir Nabokov and Jodi Picoult – and as such more than earns the first adjective Sebold chose to describe it in her front-cover blurb: “insane.”
Levine’s slow-cooked first novel is “a rollicking tale, shameless, funny and intelligent,” according to The New York Times. “A wild ride ... rocket-fast,” according to blurbist Aimee Bender. “Reading it will make the time fly delightfully by,” Karen Joy Fowler opined.
Treasure Island!!! is narrated by an anonymous, rawly egotistical young English graduate working a low-paying job at her local Pet Library – lending out animals for temporary companionship – when she becomes obsessed with Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure tale and decides to renovate her existence by adopting what she imagines to be that book’s “Core Values”: BOLDNESS, RESOLUTION, INDEPENDENCE and HORN-BLOWING.
Brash, witty and almost charming, Levine’s high-handed heroine spends the rest of the novel abusing friends and family while failing gruesomely to accomplish her goals, ultimately venting her anger in spasms of violence of which her talking parrot Richard is the most prominent victim.
She is eager to escape what Levine calls “the burden of consciousness,” and in that desire she dreams of a classic boy’s adventure where nothing matters but “the problems of the body in the open air.” Instead she sinks even deeper into the mud of her suburban cove, becoming helplessly dependent on the ministrations of her long-suffering, mainly female family and friends.
In a conscious inversion of chick-lit conventions, Levine ensures that her pretty heroine loses her boyfriend, fails to escape her suburban milieu and ends up living with her parents as her misbegotten adventure degenerates into a grotesque negative reflection of the original.
“I wanted to see what would happen if I tried to fuse an essayistic, feminine consciousness to a book which is about physical problems,” Levine says, adding it is “essayistic in the sense you could say Hamlet is, because it’s about somebody who’s paralyzed, just a mind in motion, but not able to take a big step.”
Except that Treasure Island!!! is also a ruthless satire of overentitled 21st-century youth, in which even the punctuation drips with irony – especially the three exclamation marks of the title, signs of both her narrator’s “insistence on excessiveness,” according to Levine, as well her inability to comprehend the object of her obsession. “She’s stuck in the paraphrase stage.”
Not surprisingly, it was style that first drew Levine to Stevenson. “He was so interested in sentences, and he talked about how the business of an artist was to weave meaning around itself in each sentence by successive phrases,” she says. She describes herself as “a reformed formalist” – reformed because she feels it would be naive to deny the impact of the cultural theory she encountered in graduate school, but still unreconstructed in her fascination with “how form modulates content.”
Levine loves essays because, unlike scholarly articles, “you don’t need to know anything.” And one of her favourites is Stevenson’s Apology for Idlers, “a wonderful defence of not being productive.”
So don’t expect another brisk, hilarious and heartbreaking novel from Sara Levine any time soon. “I really prize my ability to go slowly, to begin things and then put them aside,” she says.
But if Treasure Island!!! is any indication of the quality she can achieve with her stubbornly dilatory habits, any wait will be worth it.