The Tension of the Likable Unlikable

Treasure Island!!!
by Sara Levine
Europa Editions, 2012
172 pages / $15.00 Buy from Powells

I love unlikable characters. In the fictional world, I want bad people to get away with doing bad things. I want the serial killer to slip into the night or live happily never after. One of the reasons I love American Psycho so much is the methodical and unwavering way Ellis portrays Patrick Bateman as an unrepentant psychopath who is as interested in the right restaurant reservation as he is in committing sadistic acts. It’s all very unpleasant (or it isn’t) but the writing is such that it is easy to be as fascinated as you might be repulsed.

I love finding writers who can hold the reader in that complicated tension where you like the unlikable character.

Sara Levine’s remarkable Treasure Island!!! (Europa Editions) is a book with a different kind of unlikable character than Patrick Bateman who is so criminally terrible. In her debut novel, Levine has created a narrator who makes you want to armchair diagnose the extreme range of mental disorders she displays.

In Treasure Island!!!, an unnamed narrator becomes obsessed with Treasure Island and decides to live by the book’s core values as she sees them: BOLDNESS, RESOLUTION, INDEPENDENCE, HORN-BLOWING. She is completely self-obsessed and never considers the consequences of her actions as she selfishly moves through the world and tries be more like Jim Hawkins—as she ultimately tries to create her own adventure. She tells her friend Rena, “I must have been a sea-bird streaking through the azure sky of his daydream; in just the same way spirits are said to commune across cultures, time, and continents, Robert Louis Stevenson’s book Treasure Island felt cosmically intended for me.” Later, Rena gently asks, “Are you taking your Zoloft?”

The narrator works at a Pet Library where people can borrow pets. It’s a bizarre but delightful detail. The narrator is terrible at her job and in her quest to embody the core values of her new spirit guide, she makes a series of selfish, destructive decisions that include neglecting her job duties and taking (stealing) money from petty cash to buy a parrot so she can show her boss she is”capable of action.” Her master plan doesn’t end well, though the narrator is oblivious to what she has done wrong.

Soon she finds herself stuck with the parrot and without a job. Undeterred, she mooches off her gainfully employed boyfriend Lars until he can no longer put up with her. She continues taking wild advantage of the people in her life, justifying her decisions at every turn right until the end when there is a death and a stabbing and I cannot say anymore without ruining the book for you but I assure you, the narrator learns no lessons. In fact, whenever she is criticized by her boyfriend, her parents, her best friend, or her sister, she turns the tables, exposing and exploiting their vulnerabilities, often cruelly. Because they love her, the people in her life mostly enable her bad behavior as if they are unable to believe she is beyond redemption. By all rights, we should hate the narrator and judge her in the way her family cannot, but I too was willing to forgive the narrator her trespasses because she was so committed to her obsession and so unequivocally invested only in herself. When she runs into a girl she knew from high school working at a sandwich shop, a woman whose goal in life is, “to get through my shift with as little human interaction as possible,” the narrator is undeterred. She realizes, “Truthfully, I’m the kind of person who throws things away—letters, photos, tiresome clothes and people—and finding Patty was like finding some old thing in the closet that I had meant to discard. First there is annoyance (“I thought I’d thrown this out”), then the dawning realization fo your luck.”

There’s more to the story–the narrator’s sister, Adrianna is having a secret affair the narrator disapproves of. She tries to make sense of her sister’s relationship. “Maybe, I reasoned, she was sitting on his face for monetary reasons. Maybe she let him do things to her in exchange for cash, with a long-term plan to pay of her credit card debt and move out of our parents’ house.” Their parents encounter a bump in the road because of an old wound that hasn’t quite healed. There’s the bird, Richard. There’s an intervention over the narrator’s obsession with Treasure Island. The tension builds and builds and the narrator behaves so badly at times, I was tempted to read the book through my fingers. I was terrified to imagine what the narrator would do next but I still wanted to see.

I don’t know that I’ve read a funnier, smarter book than Treasure Island!!! Nor do I think I have ever cringed as much while reading a book as I did with Treasure Island!!! The wit is sharp, perfectly executed, and the tone is relentless and consistent from the beginning of the novel until the end. Levine is as committed to the narrator and the depths of her narcissism as the narrator is to Treasure Island. Each time you think the narrator has reached the apex of self-absorption and narcissism, she discovers new heights. Each time you think she might show her family or Lars a little compassion, a little tenderness, she stays the course. There is no redemptive arc here. She doesn’t learn a lesson or become a better person. She ends the novel as the same narcissistic, charmingly terrible person she was at the outset of the novel. That’s what I loved most about this book. So often in fiction we look for a redemptive arc. We look for momentum and for lessons to be learned. That’s not always how things work in real life. Sometimes people are bad and they don’t ever change nor do they want to change. The narrator is completely oblivious to her rotten ways and her unapologetic nature is refreshing. Sometimes, I get tired of redemption. I don’t always want to know the moral of the story. In Treasure Island!!!, Levine richly indulges that desire to appreciate a wholly unlikable narrator who is nonetheless likable. Levine makes you love her all the more for doing it.

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  1. Helen

      Sounds like something that would be right up my street, but I’m wondering how much the novel references Treasure Island, whether there would be something to gain – what ever that is – by reading the older text first?

  2. alan

      I just read this. In one sitting. Highly recommended!

  3. alan

      There are running references but they’re pretty self-explanatory. I would say basic aquaintance with the story of TI adds to one’s appreciation of TI!!–you realize how bad a reader the narrator is of this novel she’s obsessed with. But even that isn’t a big deal.

  4. Anonymous

      I was thoroughly entertained just reading this review of the book, and was a big fan of Short Dark Oracles. So yes, I just placed a hold on this from the library, which, sadly, doesn’t loan out pets.

  5. Anonymous