I would have sworn I'd finish no more books by the end of the year but it just goes to show when you make such a pronouncement you're nearly always wrong. The virus that's knocked me flat over the past few days made it impossible to stay awake the first two but yesterday, lo and behold, I was able to maintain consciousness long enough not only to read Sara Levine's Treasure Island!!! but also most of Ali Smith's There But for The.
I believe I was so starved for reading time my pace was set to double-quick. Also, it didn't hurt Levine's book went so quickly and Smith's was clearly written by angels. Actually, know what it made me think of? Sebastian Barry. Oh shut up with your "doesn't everything…" because no, it doesn't. The style – the beautiful, poetic prose – is uplifting in the same way as Barry. No wonder it was one of his favorite reads of 2011, and, okay, part of the reason I decided to go ahead and slip it in the line ahead of Jennifer Egan's blockbuster Goon Squad.
I'm not ready to talk about There But for The, aside from the fact it's gob-smackingly BRILLIANT through the 3/4 point, where I am. Not that I expect it to take a nosedive, as that would be shocking indeed. It's more that I honestly don't have time to get into it as deeply as it deserves right now. But for Treasure Island!!! there's time enough.
Let's first cover a point I know I've heard ad nauseum, therefore so probably have you. That is, the issue of "I don't like the main character, therefore how can I be expected to like the book?"
A bit of a literary lesson, if I may be so bold: YOU DON'T HAVE TO LIKE EVERY CHARACTER IN A BOOK FOR IT TO BE WELL-WRITTEN! Sorry for using my outside voice but STOP SAYING THAT!
I find Humbert Humbert one of the most reprehensible, revolting and disgusting bits of slime ever to walk the pages of a book but by damn Lolita is a fine piece of literature. I'm not supposed to like HH. If I did there would be something sociopathically wrong with me. Same goes for Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist. Anyone find him particularly endearing? So, is Oliver Twist any less a masterpiece? Etc., etc., etc.
Intentionally creating an unlikable main character is a skill, sort of like juggling, or playing the piano – anything that requires you do two things at once. Assuming other characters in a book are at least moderately likable, forming that one true baddie who provokes loathing in a reader is no easy feat. As for how this all ties into Treasure Island!!!, I'm reading it with an online group, and so far the most common complaint is "I don't like her!" Well, that's understandable, because throughout most of the book the main character is a selfish, conceited bitch. Though, on the other hand, she's at times a hilariously funny, selfish, conceited bitch.
Personally, having said an awful lot about recognizing an author's skill despite how you feel about her characters, in the end – despite the character's very last minute growth/change – I did not find the book that satisfactory a read. It was funny at times, wicked at others. And at the end I could kind of, sort of understand the character's motivation (in addition to seeing the aforesaid growth) for all the things she did within the course of the book. But was she a masterfully-drawn character?
Not quite. There simply wasn't enough to the book. It didn't have enough to say about, well, anything in particular. It's an entertainment, rather than a piece of literature I walked away from feeling in some way transformed, more enlightened about the human condition. Despite an okay ending it just didn't grab me. I love books that knock me around a bit, leave me bruised and battered.
What's it about? The main character – who, as far as I can recall, is never named – becomes, for no apparent reason, obsessed with R.L. Stevenson's Treasure Island. She carries the book with her everywhere, taking endless notes, mostly about extraneous details most of us wouldn't care about, some of them in code for whatever reason. Her telling remark about the book, an image repeated several times, is:
"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?"
And a barnacle she is, throughout the course of the book, occasionally realizing it but mostly just going along for the ride.
When the book opens she's working at a "Pet Library," which is exactly what it sounds: animals are checked out and returned after a specific lending period. After blowing all the owner's petty cash on a parrot, she's fired. Oddly enough, she's never charged with stealing the money. For the rest of the novel she knocks about, living off people and doing as she pleases. With the parrot, of course. The parrot she despises. The owner of the Pet Library was curiously uninterested in adding it to her collection, though her money bought the incredibly expensive bird. Why not try to recoup that investment or demand it be returned and her money restored to her? Again, I just don't know.
She meets and develops a boyfriend relationship with a man named Lars, moves in with him once her unemployed state makes her unable to afford her own apartment, and starts spending his money like mad. Things go forward, little makes any sense and telling more would just be spoiling the plot.
Books that are just okay, fun while they last then forgotten, are pretty much useless to me. I don't read "beach books," "chick lit" or, usually (though watch for an upcoming exception to that rule), "cozies." I don't like the light and fluffy. I don't need a lighter book between more serious books. They waste my limited reading time. I want the exceptional, the concise books that pack a serious punch or the longer, poetic, angelic books of the sort Sebastian Barry (!) and Ali Smith write. Among others, of course, but choosing favorite writers is much like choosing a favorite among my children. Depending on the day.
But it's not all bad for Sara Levine. She writes some howlingly funny stuff, like this:
"I've never liked Long John Silver, but reading about him vigorously stumping around on his wooden leg prepared me to see the positive side of a crippled life. I shudder to think of it, but I know my strengths: I could lose a limb and, with the right wardrobe, still come off as sexy. I'm not saying I would want to wear a prosthetic hand, only that I'm the kind of girl who could pull it off, whereas Adrianna – what can I say? Her appeal is limited."
Her humor, dark and snarky, is the sort I like. I just didn't love the book as a whole. After discussing it with the Rumpus Book Group I may have a more generous point of view but I expect it won't change dramatically. On a scale of one to Sebastian Barry it's a mere meh. Nothing to get excited about, nothing to flail my arms around recommending. It's funny, the main character is basically a useless but wonky leach, and in the end she undergoes a sort of awakening. So it's all there, all the requirements of good writing. It just didn't excite me. Plus, there's a bit about cruelty to animals. Gratuitous cruelty. And sorry, that's just not funny.
My two cents? I'd take a pass on this one.
Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine
Europa Editions (December 7, 2011)
Source: My personal library.