Sara Levine, Treasure Island!!!

Besides being incredibly funny, Treasure Island!!! is a useful reminder to myself that readers in books aren’t always people I want to identify with.

It also provided a nice excuse to talk about Antonia Forest (again) and Among Others (again) and the Swallows and Amazons books (again) in last weekend’s column.

 

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Books about books, specifically books about readers, are a weakness of mine. I which I do not mean characters simply who like to read (reading has also often been used as a sort of shorthand to signify that a character is virtuous and introspective) but readers whose lives we see being affected and shaped by particular books. Like Jo Walton’s Among Others, told through Mori’s diary as she works her way through books, teenage feelings, and supernatural peril. Or Antonia Forest’s Nicola Marlow, who frequently hearkens back to the literature she’s read to help her think through real life situations. Or, further back, the children of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books, who filter the real world landscape of their summer holidays through a tradition of adventure novels that allows them to sail the high seas, fight pirates and find hidden treasure without ever really having to go too far from home.

R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island is an important book to Ransome’s characters, and informs much of their understanding of adventure. And since most readers of books are (hopefully) people who like reading books, it makes sense to us that these characters should see books as important, even talismanic, and that that can be a good thing.

It can also go horribly, hilariously wrong.

The narrator of Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! Is a young woman in her mid-twenties, with no particular talents or ambitions. Drifting from dull job to dull job, she chances across her sister’s library copy of Treasure Island. Where her sister rejects the book for its lack of interiority and the absence of female characters, the narrator falls in love with it, identifying as its core values “BOLDNESS/ RESOLUTION/ INDEPENDENCE/ HORN-BLOWING” and taking these for her own motto.

In another book, this would be the cue for a (potentially cringeworthy) journey of self-discovery. In this one, it is the cue for buying a parrot.

‘In Treasure Island, Long John Silver’s Parrot shouts, “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!” Mine would shout, “Be bold, but be kind, be yourself but be plucky, be flexible and yet tenacious,” assuming a parrot could be trained to say such a long and syntactically complex thing. If not, I would accept “Steer the boat, girlfriend!”’

If bookish readers tend to identify with, and ascribe virtue to, bookish characters, Levine’s narrator renders that impossible. She has no interest in making this woman likeable or relatable—traits often dumped upon female authors and characters as an unasked-for duty. The narrator is monstrous, and far from becoming aware over the course of the book, she becomes more and more detached from the reality of her own awfulness. Over the course of the book we see her indulge in negligence that causes several deaths, theft, stalking, murder. Her lack of remorse, and seeming inability to see that any of this is unacceptable, would be chilling were it not so funny.

And it is truly hilarious. As her own life and the lives of those people who (for some reason) love her fall apart around her, our narrator continues to find ways to believe in her own blamelessness. Some of them are almost convincing. I said above that it was hard to relate to this woman, yet that’s not always true. Her worst traits are exaggerated but some are terrifyingly familiar. If the reader is an irresponsible twenty-something year-old this can be a little unsettling.

Treasure Island is seen as a “boy” book; it’s a plot-heavy adventure novel with pirates, and it is certainly lacking in deep philosophical statements. But at one point in Treasure Island!!! its heroine almost evolves a system of governing her life by the book. It seems entirely random, and also quite capable of working (for a different, less monstrous, heroine). It’s a useful reminder that perhaps books are not imbued with the magical moral force with which we sometimes credit them.

 

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