Writer In Residence, February 2012
Three years ago this month, I took over editorial duties for Necessary Fiction and worked my way through a backlog of submissions. The very first story I accepted for the site was “Baby Love,” by a writer I wasn’t familiar with yet: Sara Levine. We weren’t the only ones who liked it, though, because Sara’s story went on from its humble origins here to be selected for Best of the Web 2010 and to appear in her Caketrain Press collection Short Dark Oracles. Lately, Sara has gone to even bigger things, with her novel Treasure Island!!! winning praise — and deservedly so — from the likes of the New York Times, the Star Tribune, and O Magazine. It’s a good thing we asked her months ago if she’d like to spend the month of February as Writer In Residence, because her schedule must be getting awfully full.
Writing at Big Other in 2009, Tim Jones-Yelvington described “Baby Love” as “lucidly whacked,” and that sounds about right to me. Whether it’s their own bad haircuts or the not-quite-welcome presence of their children, Levine’s characters and their stories capture precisely and perfectly those unexplainable, undefinable ways in which the our “lucidly whacked” brains make our lives strange and how that can be grim, but can also be essential for getting ourselves through one day then another. To describe her protagonists or sum up her plots might make them sound impossibly absurd and unsympathetic. But to read them is to marvel at how human, how complex, and how darkly hilarious these unlikely elements become in her hands. Treasure Island!!! is no different, and seeing those qualities in the larger space of a novel only makes them more impressive. We shouldn’t want to follow the book’s awful, unlikeable, unkind anti-heroine, and yet… well, just try putting it down after you’ve read a few lines in her voice.
As Levine recently told The Globe and Mail,
“I wanted to see what would happen if I tried to fuse an essayistic, feminine consciousness to a book which is about physical problems,” Levine says, adding it is “essayistic in the sense you could say Hamlet is, because it’s about somebody who’s paralyzed, just a mind in motion, but not able to take a big step.”
That combination of almost frenetic action and physicality with an incisive narrative intellect is what I admire most in her book. It made me think of Raymond Queneau’s Zazie in the Metro and other short, sharp novels that border on slapstick, but the slapstick of Jacques Tati in which there’s something serious and complex behind the humor. Treasure Island!!! takes on stereotypes of gender and genre, the challenges of self-help and ambition and being an adventurer and a good person at the same time, as it’s anti-heroine does her chaotic best to live by the “Core Values” of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. One of those values being “horn-blowing,” which I think I’ve done enough of here for the time being. So one more loud fanfare to welcome Sara Levine, and whatever she’s bringing to harbor for us this month.