Posted by Theresa J. Beckhusen
Written by Zachary Lee
Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine is an intriguing, swashbuckling novel that places the reader on a ship destined to sink and tells them to hold on for dear life. And hold on I did: I read the book within two days, dreading any moment I had to put it down. As the reader, you become as obsessed with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island as the unnamed protagonist is, although it might just be the protagonist’s absurdity and poor judgment that keep you hooked.. The novel itself is only 172 pages, but the story and its frame are so expansive that you feel like the novel is twice as long as it actually is, which you’ll be glad for, I’m certain.
The plot of the story is rather straightforward. A girl is given a copy of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, and then becomes obsessed with the book and tries to live her life according to the four codes of the book:
“BOLDNESS. RESOULTION. INDEPENDENCE. HORN-BLOWING.”
And of course everything then goes wrong in the best way possible. The most interesting aspect of the story is the unnamed anti-hero protagonist who blocks or destroys herself every chance she gets. No matter the situation or circumstance, the protagonist finds a way to implode everything. It’s as if the protagonist is allergic to anything going right in her life. I thought the use of an anti-hero was really intriguing, and extremely entertaining to read. How will she shoot herself in the foot again? And again? The tension built up just waiting for the protagonist to fail is palpable, but I believe it actually adds ambiguity. You have a vague sense of what’s going to happen or what may happen—and with this protagonist, it could be almost anything—but you’re ultimately left in the dark, only able to guess. Levine’s self-defeating protagonist finds the most outlandish ways to get in her own way.
Since her protagonist is really an anti-hero, the other characters in Treasure Island!!! must carry some of the burden of the protagonist’s choices. The protagonist is unable to handle simply returning Treasure Island to the library, so there is no possible way she could handle a break-up, getting fired, the death of a pet, and uncovering a double affair. The supporting characters are forced to carry the consequences of all of her questionable decisions. Take Lars, her boyfriend. The protagonist and Lars move in together and he’s forced to work more hours as well as take on household duties because the protagonist is too caught up in Treasure Island and is incapable of identifying and taking on any responsibilities. Lars seems to be the only own between them who understands the difference between right and wrong when he discovers the reason for her being “let go” from the Pet Library, her former place of employment. (The protagonist stole “petty cash” from the owner):
“‘Oh come on! Nancy thinking I stole her money, that’s out of line.’
‘You did take it—’
‘But it was petty cash. And I’m her employee. She’s putting the worst possible spin on it. She goes about as if she’s St. Francis of Assisi!’”
Levine refreshes the classic coming-of-age and hero-worshiping story and pushes it into the frame of an insane and awkward obsession. Throughout the novel the protagonist constantly refers to her hero, Jim Hawkins, and how he would behave in certain situations. The protagonist then attempts to live life in his footsteps. And if it can go wrong, it will go wrong. But I think the way Levine subtly weaves the message of growing up through the lens of Jim Hawkins is absolutely brilliant. It’s brutally honest while coming off as naïve. The protagonist lets Treasure Island and Jim Hawkins speak for her, which means she’s further able to ignore responsibility and live in a fantasy world:
“‘Not now, Lars.’ My speech was roughly modeled on the one Jim Hawkins gives in the enemy’s camp, and I was extremely pleased to realize I knew so much of it by heart. ‘I’ve had the top of this business from the first,’ I went on. ‘You can do your inexplicable intervention or you can leave me alone, but I no more fear you than I fear a fly.’
‘You do fear flies,’ Adrianna said blandly.”
The main, and only, issue I had with the novel is the way it transitions from order to chaos to a feeble attempt at restoring order. The novel’s trajectory from order to chaos works, but the book just becomes too sporadic when it tries to wrangle everything back together for an ending. At that point it’s hard to follow everything going on, but the characters and story are just so intriguing that you hardly realize that Levine is fighting to gain back control. You really have to pay close attention to see the signs of the tussle.
The novel may struggle with control at times, but its humor, characters, and intriguing, but disturbing, story pull you through without any issues. I had a lot of fun reading this novel and seeing how deep in hot water the protagonist could get herself. So I leave you with this: the motto of Richard, the protagonist’s pet parrot, something to urge you to take on some responsibility in your life so you don’t end up like Levine’s protagonist: “Steer the boat, girlfriend!”
Zachary Lee is a Vouched Books Indy intern and senior Creative Writing student at the University of Indianapolis. He hopes to attend an MFA program after graduation. He can be reached on Twitter @_Zach_Lee.