It’s difficult to say whether the hero of Treasure Island!!! is the unnamed narrator or her pet parrot Richard. Both are colorful, plucky, and entertaining in their obnoxiousness; both are prone to blurting inappropriate remarks at untimely moments. And both are clueless about how to escape their respective cages.
Our narrator is a modern-day 25-year-old white middle-class suburban American woman. She’s [shudder] a millennial—you know, that generation of “self-absorbed little monsters who expect the world to come to them and for their parents to clean up their rooms well into their 20s” (Time). Sure enough, by the book’s midpoint she’s jobless and moves back into her childhood bedroom to live rent-free and take advantage of her mother’s cooking and cleaning. Not that she expresses any gratitude; to move home is to “slide backwards,” to “sacrifice the INDEPENDENCE she had earned by agreeing to not only eat meals with [her] parents, but to share the same bathroom!” (82).
INDEPENDENCE is the third of four Core Values that she has recently adopted upon reading an overdue library copy of Treasure Island. The book’s swashbuckling rhetoric and adventures galvanize her to take charge of her life:
When had I ever dreamed a scheme? When had I ever done a foolish, over-bold act? When had I ever, like Jim Hawkins, broke from my friends, raced for the beach, stolen a boat, killed a man, or eliminated an obstacle that stood in the way of getting my hunk of gold? I, a person unable to decide what to do with my broken mini-blinds, let alone with the rest of my life, lay on my bed, while in the book’s open air, people chased assholes out of pubs and trampled blind beggars with their horses. (14-5)
As a first step toward a new life (of what, it’s unclear—asshole-chasing and beggar-trampling?), she begins devoting her time to endlessly rereading Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale, keeping meticulous notes on index cards as she goes. She soon concludes that her role model, Hawkins, lives according to four Core Values that she must emulate.
Disaster ensues. Her chronically rude attitude could pass for (1) BOLDNESS, and her stubborn refusal to find employment is a sort of (2) RESOLUTION. Penniless and back with her parents, she has clearly missed the mark with (3) INDEPENDENCE. Her greatest success is found in Value (4) HORN-BLOWING: despite her failure to pursue any meaningful activity in life (“I did not scan the horizon for volunteer opportunities; […] I ran from anyone stinking of need” ), she’s unwaveringly confident about her own likability (“I could lose a limb and, with the right wardrobe, still come off as sexy” ).
But rather than acknowledge that she has fallen short in living in accordance with her Core Values, she copies the book by purchasing herself a parrot named Richard and calls it even.
Our narrator’s blind self-absorption is the book’s main source of comedy. She’s a prototypical unreliable narrator, so immersed in her own delusions that she cannot come up for a fresh breath of perspective and recognize how brazenly she’s sabotaging her relationships and herself. When her boss fires her for negligence and stealing, she scoffs and expects an apology; when her boyfriend tearfully breaks up with her for clearly, callously using him, she can only insist that she dumped him and criticize his nose hairs. We readers roll our eyes every time her friend pays for her coffee or her mother does her laundry. Her attitude is absurd, her behavior is appalling—her Values-espousing hypocrisy is just the cherry on top. We judge her where she is too blind to judge herself, and we laugh in the process.
But this same blind self-absorption is also the book’s main source of tragedy. She wants to grow, but she has no idea how to proceed, and she is too paralyzed by fear to engage in actual introspection or take on adult responsibilities. Simple challenges like driving at night trigger panic; her depression induces day-time naps while Xanax allows her to sleep at night. Of course, our unreliable narrator does not describe herself so explicitly. We catch glimpses of her true character indirectly, mirrored back at us when she interacts with others. And ultimately Richard the parrot is her most accurate mirror when he literally parrots her:
…another sound came from his beak. At first it seemed like a laugh. Then the laugh sort of fell down the stairs and became a wail. That intractable bird, that bird in whom I could barely wedge a useful phrase, had been studying my misery when I’d thought he was asleep. I threw the cloth over his cage and my hands began to tremble. The sound was terrible: defeated, despairing, almost crazy. Shut up, shut up, but he carried on sobbing, relentless as a wave. (116)
Richard was meant to bring her strength, and instead he only reminds her of her own weakness. “I loathe you,” she tells him afterward, and “your paltry, coarse, double-crossing soul” (117).
The idea of a parrot as a partner in boldness, resolution, and independence may have seemed exciting in the pages of Treasure Island, but from the moment she brings the fantasy to life he becomes just another terrifying specter. “It was larger and more alive than I had expected,” she says upon first facing him (30). Too frightened to let him fly freely about the apartment, she nervously concludes that “A cage is a bird’s home. It safeguards him from the overwhelming complexity of the world” (47).
Instead of fortifying her against her fears, Richard comes to embody them. She’s as helpless in caring for him as she is in nurturing her own dreams: eventually she stops uncovering his cage in the morning (84). Her mother chides her for not feeding him daily (102) and her sister protests that she hasn’t bothered to research his basic needs (146). Richard’s original magnificence molts into a lackluster sickliness and eventually, rather than muster the courage to care for him, she medicates and suffocates him out of existence.
It’s only when her (and her parrot’s) crisis approaches its climax that she identifies with her chosen hero:
I began to feel just a bit more like Jim Hawkins. Not the Jim Hawkins I had long admired—the boy who sails off to seek treasure, and upon discovering the crew is a murderous gang of pirates, grabs a gun and heads east to the shoreline, careless, clear-headed, and brave. I was more like the Jim Hawkins when absolute blackness settles on the island, and adrift in a coracle, he is unable to pinpoint the position of the anchored ship. (130-1)
Perhaps she should’ve known from the start that it would be unwise to model her life on a book that had been abandoned on her futon by a third-grade teacher who said it was “all action and no feeling” and “that her hand would force no nine-year-old girl to read it” (13). Shortly after she adopts it as her guide to life, her boyfriend suggests that she join an adult book club instead, but she objects, apparently preferring a regression into children’s fantasies over age-appropriate progression with her peers. Later she notes that “There's not much about love in Treasure Island,” (104) but she doesn’t take the next logical step and conclude that Treasure Island was an inappropriate source of role models and Core Values for a young adult “unable to decide what to do with […] the rest of my life” (15).
To return to my opening line, it’s absurd of me to suggest that Richard the parrot could be the book’s hero. He is little more than our nameless narrator’s failed Jungian animus, a simplified Dark Materials dæmon that allows her (and us) to treat her paralyzing fear of adult responsibility as a tangible entity. She wants to confront it; reading Treasure Island of all things prompts her to muster her courage; once faced with its overwhelming power and complexity, however, she feels threatened. She continues to make sweeping claims about her personal growth, but they ring more and more false as she neglects it, hidden in the dark of her childhood room. Finally, too tortured by its presence and her own failure, she smothers the problem back into oblivion.
Treasure Island!!! is quick-witted, fast-paced, and wickedly funny. Sara Levine intelligently crafts the book’s structure from start to finish and very cleverly weaves Stevenson’s language, imagery, and characters into a contemporary setting. My only complaint is that this narrator of ours never evolves, and it’s for this reason that I opened by questioning her role as hero. At the book’s close she has swept through a flurry of personal dramas, but for all that plot there is no progress. Yes, in the concluding chapter she finally takes the driver’s seat (in her father’s car) and learns to read a map (drawn by her mother), but the red X does not mark some new treasure worthy of an adult—it takes her right back home, reinforcing the millennial’s boomerang back to the childhood bedroom. The overdue library book has been returned, the bird has died; have her fears and dreams fallen back into their original state of paralysis? No alternative adventure has come to light. It seems that her quest for INDEPENDENCE is ending as she drops anchor once more in her family’s safe harbor of a suburban home.