If life were a sea adventure, I knew: I wouldn’t be sailor, pirate, or cabin boy but more likely a barnacle clinging to the side of the boat. Why not rise, I thought. Why not spring up that very moment, in the spirit of Jim, and create my own adventure?
I’m a recent college graduate too, and closer-to-home words have never been spoken “Lightning quick.” We use it to describe witty tongues and exchanges of dialogue and general turns of fate, but I guess I had never really known how it applied to any book. I’m a slow and plodding reader (if I haven’t stressed that enough), and tend to read every sentence twice before proceeding to the next, so that sort of swiftness has never seemed applicable to books unless it’s also coupled with a term to mitigate its cleverness, like “disjointed.” If you want to know what I mean by that, read something as insufferable as Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor, where every sentence warrants a new paragraph and no articles, for some reason. The point: I know now what lightning-quick lit is, and it’s Sara Levine’s unparalleled first novel, Treasure Island!!! Firsts: First novel I’ve ever read to include exclamation points in its title; first time I’ve ever Googled a novel and combed the first four pages of results before realizing I’d HAVE to specify the author; first time I’ve wanted so badly to firmly slap a protagonist across the face — not for their evil acts, but for their plain idiotic ones. You don’t want to punish this nameless narrator, you want to lecture her. You want to be her parent. You want to be some sort of stability for her that no one around her has the guts to be.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
What you need to know is this: you are dealing with an obsessive, unreliable narrator who reads Stevenson’s 19th-ceuntury novel about swashbuckling pirates and decides that her own drab, post-graduate life can be given both shape and direction by what she labels Treasure Island‘s four core values: Boldness, Resolution, Independence, and Horn-Blowing. These values lead her to do everything from stealing money for the purchase of a parrot to laying siege upon her boyfriend’s apartment to uncovering her sister’s biggest secret and relaying the details to the entire family. Her plan to live a brash, Jim Hawkins lifestyle is one that every peripheral character in the book finds as mildly imbalanced as you, the reader, do; that’s precisely why the book can get away with any of its zaniness without crazy’s usual syrupy aftertaste, self awareness. Everyone is sly to the oddity of these lifestyle choices but the hapless protagonist herself, who is so literally clueless that maybe that’s why Levine gets away with unendearing passages such as this one:
Sometimes my mother would telephone…and outline, with cheerful precision, her tasks for the rest of the day. “You know me, I like to keep my ducks in a row.” I knew what she thought my ducks looked like–scattered around the pond, wings drooping, heads listing; one call to Animal Patrol would confirm they had West Nile virus.
If that didn’t make it clear, there is almost no point at which this narrator can be found likeable, or even tolerable. She is not misunderstood, nor is she the product of the uncontrollable forces that shaped her. She is mean, obsessive, catty, self-absorbed, lazy, greedy, manipulative. She is floundering in a world that — SHOCKER! — wants her to do more with her life than eat her parents’ groceries and re-read Treasure Island with a stack of index cards, taking more notes. The reader wants more from her. And while I won’t spill the details here, I will say that in this regard, she delivers, though in precisely the wrong ways.
And if you’re wondering if you have to read Treasure Island itself to gain context, rest assured that Levine does all the grunt work for you there. I had never read a sentence of it, nor had I ever eaten at a Long John Silver’s, nor seen that Muppet rendition of the book, nor done much of anything besides see Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean in the movie theater nine times. (True story.) I was able to coast through each short chapter with the knowledge that this is about as seafaring as the novel ever gets:
“Well, we’re off!” she said, as if we were going to sea in a schooner, with a piping boatswain and pig-tailed singing seamen, when in fact we were going to her house, with a freaky, self-righteous, red-eyed, greasy-feathered, clapper-clawed parrot in the back of a rented van.
As for that coasting: you do a lot of it in this book. Not because the material disinterests you but because Levine makes the oft-schizophrenic narrative glide and flow as calmly as a wave. Not that she’s doing us any favors by this, because when moments disrupt the tide of these tiny chapters and pointed sentences, they pop and, yes, feel like a bolt of lightning. How, again, is this Levine’s first novel?
You won’t come out of this any happier. You probably won’t even come out of it wanting to read Treasure Island. You’ll feel disoriented in a way that screams you were right to read this lightning-quick gem, even if you can’t yet articulate why, and perhaps never will land on the right reason, except that, well, you did.
And you might find yourself wanting to buy an Amazonian parrot as some sort of atonement for the pieces of this book you can’t correct or wish away. Nevertheless, they are squarely and unapologetically there, just as Levine’s status as the next voice of American fiction in the Information Age ought to be.