Reviews | July 15, 2015
The Desert Island Novel: A Small Place for Big Characters
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. Signet Classic, 2008, 322 pp., $5.95 (paper).
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Modern Library Classics, 2001, 240 pp., $11.99.
Robinson by Muriel Spark. New Directions, 2003, 176 pp., $15.95.
Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine. Europa Editions, 172 pp., $15 (paper).
The novel lends itself especially well to extremes of scope. On one hand, it is expansive, allowing for an exploration of a whole society—scores of characters with complicated relationships, shifting currents of power, political maneuverings and class dynamics. It might span decades and continents. It might come complete with family-tree diagrams in the first few pages, lest readers forget who is pretending to be whose second cousin, once removed. The Victorians (Dickens, Collins, Thackeray, Eliot) were especially adept at the creation of big novels, but today, too, the expansive novel is enjoying a moment. We can see the Victorians’ influence in Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize-winning doorstop The Luminaries, which traces twelve main characters’ involvement in a complicated crime in a mining town in nineteenth-century New Zealand, or in Jeff VanderMeer’s chronicle of a blighted and strange region in Florida in the Southern Reach trilogy, or even, perhaps, in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s confoundingly compelling seven-volume fictional autobiography My Struggle, expansive in its page count but narrow in its subject matter: the life of one man, rendered in exhaustive detail.
Somehow, a big novel’s length aids what Coleridge calls readers’ “willing suspension of disbelief,” the surrender to the world of a text, no matter the improbabilities. I spend so long with a big book, I no longer remember that I’m reading. The physicality of the page dissolves, and I forget about my self, too. It’s the closest I come to an out-of-body experience. When I finish reading a big novel, I’m left bereft, as if I have lost something dear. And I have: the world of the novel is so much more compelling, and maybe even much more knowable, than the real world.
Some writers have argued that readers should not be expected to devote such time to a big novel because big novels are about the wrong things. Virginia Woolf, in her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” rails against Arnold Bennett’s assertion that there were no great Georgian novelists “because they cannot create characters who are real, true, and convincing.” Woolf, herself a Georgian writer, understandably takes umbrage. She asserts that Edwardians like Bennett are unable to penetrate the souls of their characters; what they settle for instead is a cataloguing of the material stuff that surrounds the character, in the vague hope that if the author is thorough enough, the character’s interiority will emerge. Woolf writes, “[Edwardian writers] have looked very powerfully, searchingly, and sympathetically out of the window; at factories, at Utopias, even at the decoration and upholstery of the carriage; but never at [a character], never at life, never at human nature.” For Woolf, exhaustiveness in describing concrete stuff in a novel is not as essential as revelation about human behavior garnered through close examination of characters’ interiority.
This discussion of the right and true presentation of character is not confined to the hinge of Victorian literature and modernism. Michael Chabon in his novel Wonder Boys presents a writer who is eaten up with the importance of novel creation. His student, who has bravely read a considerable portion of his 2,611-page draft, suggests that the problem with the novel (for any novel of such a length must have a problem) is that the characters themselves take a back seat to background information, such as genealogies of characters’ horses. This sounds like Woolf’s objection to Edwardian writers. Chabon’s writer disagrees:
The problem, if anything, was precisely the opposite. I had too much to write: too many fine and miserable buildings to construct and streets to name and clock towers to set chiming, too many characters to raise up from the dirt like flowers whose petals I peeled down to the intricate frail organs within, too many terrible genetic and fiduciary secrets to dig up and bury and dig up again, too many divorces to grant, heirs to disinherit, trysts to arrange, letters to misdirect into evil hands, innocent children to slay with rheumatic fever, women to leave unfulfilled and hopeless, men to drive to adultery and theft, fires to ignite at the hearts of ancient houses.
I am struck by the impossibility of the task Chabon’s writer has given himself, and it is, to be sure, a problem of scope. Reading these lines makes one yearn for a way to strip away the weight of the author’s responsibility, to suggest that a single novel does not need to capture so much of the world.
These problems of weight and of weightiness do not plague the short novel, which at about two hundred pages can be read in a long afternoon or a couple of evenings. When you finish a short novel, you part as friends, rather than as estranged acquaintances (in the case of an unsatisfying read) or cruelly separated lovers (in the case of an engrossing one). The short novel offers a narrative of a more compressed scope in order to allow for more pointed examinations of certain elements. If big novels allow for exploration of whole societies, small novels are especially adept at capturing an individual consciousness or the dynamics of a small group.
One way to limit a novel’s scope is to narrow the setting. Three of the short novels under consideration here—Robinson Crusoe, Robinson and Treasure Island — are united by their setting on uninhabited islands with scant square mileage. The fourth, Treasure Island!!! boasts a protagonist so solipsistic that she undoes Donne’s assertion that no man is an island. Treasure Island!!! and Robinson offer intriguing reimaginings of the canonical texts.
The desert island as a setting debuted with the birth of the novel, in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). What makes the desert island such a great setting, one that endures? There is the physical difficulty. Immediately upon being cast away on an island, the protagonist must confront the problem of keeping soul and body together (no getting lost in big thick novels for him). He needs food, he needs water, he needs shelter. This provides immediate narrative movement. And, of course, there is the psychological difficulty. Frequently the path that leads a character to the island is traumatic, so that if he does not arrive onshore with physical wounds, psychic ones might dog him. Even if the character reaches the island unscathed, he must then confront the rigors of isolation. This can become a narrative problem, too, for how do you create narrative tension or movement when your scope is so small that there is only one character? If the author has given the main character companions in his sojourn, there is the interpersonal difficulty that comes from strong personalities that don’t have enough room to spread out. Characters who don’t get along, who in the normal course of events might simply avoid each other, are forced to engage on an island.
Robinson Crusoe (1719) is mostly concerned with the first of these difficulties. Crusoe has an adventuresome spirit and, despite his father’s warnings, goes to sea to pursue his fortune. He comes to all manner of grief there, from seasickness to enslavement. He enjoys a short term of prosperity in South America but then volunteers to voyage to Africa to bring back slaves for his plantation and those of his friends. The ship is lost in a storm, and Crusoe is the only survivor. He awakens upon an island, and his early days are spent performing tasks of basic survival and in fear of attack by wild animals. With the help of supplies from the ship, which has conveniently (improbably?) fetched up on a shoal close to the beach, he fashions a shelter and incrementally improves his situation through farming, animal husbandry and hunting. Set against these concerns for physical survival is his newfound religious faith, which allows him to come to terms with his bad luck and even to appreciate the blessing of his survival.
Crusoe keeps a journal, which reveals much about his character. While the journal does trace his spiritual awakening, much more space on the page is given over to small gains in his living conditions. There is a particularly rhapsodic section in which he figures out how to make “Earthen Vessels” for storing and cooking his food. Crusoe’s focus on external circumstances might be reminiscent of Bennett’s work as critiqued by Woolf, but the important distinction is that rather than an omniscient narrator detailing these circumstances for readers, here the protagonist narrates. Crusoe’s gaze tells us about his psychology. He is methodical, exacting and rather unemotional. The discussion of concrete circumstances dominates the text because it dominates his thoughts. At the beginning of the novel, just after he is marooned, such exacting attention to details of survival would be expected for any character. For Crusoe, though, this focus remains long after he has established adequate shelter and supplies of food and water. The conflict of human versus nature has been resolved, with the human triumphing, but still Crusoe recounts his farming strategies, his larder’s contents, his baking techniques.
There is a fascinating moment halfway through the novel, just as Crusoe is resigning himself to his lonely fate. He has badly missed companionship, so much so that the parrot he tamed has learned this refrain: “Poor Robin Crusoe, Where are you? Where have you been?” But then Crusoe finds a footprint on the beach. One might expect him to feel relief or hope, but instead, he’s “terrify’d to the last Degree.” At some point in his time on the island, certain loneliness has become preferable to unknown companionship. True, the footprint does turn out to belong to a cannibal, but there’s an even more curious scene later. An English ship sails to the island, and Crusoe narrates:
I cannot express the Confusion I was in, tho’ the Joy of seeing a Ship and one who I had Reason to believe was Mann’d by my own Countrymen, and consequently Friends, was such as I cannot describe; but yet I had some secret Doubts hung about me, I cannot tell from whence they came, bidding me keep upon my Guard.
What can explain this hesitation in Crusoe, this seeming reluctance for deliverance? Perhaps it has to do with the notion he’s developed that it is the “general Plague of Mankind” not to be satisfied with your place in the world. But perhaps, too, Crusoe has enjoyed the control he has exercised over the island and his own personal liberty in his isolation, and he is loath to give it up. Early in the novel, he describes himself as king of the island, pointing out how he has “the Lives of all my Subjects at my absolute Command. I could hang, draw, give Liberty, and take it away, and no Rebels among all my Subjects.” The “Subjects” in this moment, are a dog, some cats and a parrot. Later he rescues a companion, Friday, from a tribe of cannibals, and the first English word Crusoe teaches him is “master,” referring, of course, to himself. Crusoe finds privation and struggle on the island, but he also learns to enjoy power and total liberty, which he finds difficult to relinquish, even if his only interlocutors are winged or four-legged.
The title of Muriel Spark’s Robinson (1958) announces that it is in conversation with Robinson Crusoe, and there are a number of surface similarities: both novels are about people who become marooned, both take place mostly on an island small enough to circumnavigate on foot and both have protagonists who are exploring religious faith. The protagonist in Robinson, January Marlow, who tells her story in the first person retrospectively, meets the titular character after a plane crash which has killed nearly thirty people and left only three survivors: January herself, Tom Wells, a purveyor of lucky charms and an accomplished blackmailer, and Jimmie Waterford, a Dutchman who stands to inherit Robinson’s fortune. The plane lands, handily, on Robinson’s island, which has a population of two for the majority of the year: Robinson, a mysterious, rich hermit in his early fifties—who has an appetite for control as strong as Crusoe’s—and Miguel, a nine-year-old Portuguese boy he adopted. Once a year, the pomegranate boats bring men to the island who stay for a few weeks harvesting the pomegranates. Miguel’s father, before he died, was one of these men. Unlike in Robinson Crusoe, after the initial terror of the wreck, which January cannot even remember, there is never any danger of death from accident or privation. Instead, the tension comes from the grating of strong personalities.
Robinson starts as a novel about people forced to make do in straitened circumstances, in a group they would not have selected themselves, but then, about halfway through, Robinson disappears, leaving behind only bloody garments. The novel turns much darker. It seems sure that one of the remaining islanders murdered Robinson and dropped his body in a volcano vent called the Furnace. January, Tom and Jimmie go from competing for Miguel’s attention (January teaches a cat to play ping-pong, Tom gives Miguel lucky trinkets) to wondering who among them might be a murderer. No one trusts anyone, and January’s suspicions vacillate from Tom, whom she intensely dislikes but who seems to have no motive, and Jimmie, whom she likes very much but who is Robinson’s heir. These moments call to mind the claustrophobia of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, another island novel, in which ten characters are killed one by one by a mysterious murderer.
Near the end, Robinson steers away from its flirtation with the mystery genre. Robinson reappears, having faked his own death seemingly because he couldn’t stand the sudden influx of people and because he could not force them to hew to his plans. At first this ending seems maddening. Rules for the murder mystery have been established, but they are summarily violated when it is revealed that there has been no murder at all. The hand of God has come down and swept away the mystery. But Robinson is a novel about character, and about ways in which characters attempt to bend other characters to their will, using the scant tools the island provides. In this way, the ending is just right: it’s a deus ex machina fashioned by someone (echoes of Robinson Crusoe here) who fancies himself Deus.
The island’s shape helps to create this sense that Robinson dominates the story. A map in the front of the book shows that Robinson Island (for Robinson has named the island after himself) forms an outline of a man lying prone. Areas of the island are referred to by their relationship to this anatomy: the North Arm, the West Leg, the Headlands. There is something uncanny about the survivors of the crash scrabbling over these various body parts, and things get even more intimate when a series of underground tunnels is revealed, so that January and the other characters walk not only all over Robinson but through him as well. This metaphor speaks, too, to how he feels about the marooned survivors destroy his privacy.
Robinson’s disappearance happens just as he steals January’s rosary for the second time (the first was when she was unconscious after the plane crash). She has been threatening to teach Miguel about it, which throws Robinson into a panic that seems out of proportion. Both Robinson and January are Catholics, and Robinson objects to what he calls in a pamphlet he wrote “The Dangers of Marian Doctrine.” In this way he resembles January’s brother-in-law, Ian, who carps about “Marian excesses,” saying, “All this Mariolatry is eating the Christian heart out of the Catholic faith. . . . It is a materialistic heresy.” Both characters have a problem with idolatry, yes, but it is a problem that is also closely tied to gender. Mary makes them uncomfortable, but so, too, does the possibility that January, a widow, might undertake a romantic relationship. Robinson does what he can to foil her closeness with Jimmie, and, before she reaches the island, Ian travels across several countries to spy on her because he believes she is having a love affair. The men on the island, and in her life in general, view her as a repository for their hangups about sex. January, for her part, wants none of either and views men as a frustration to be avoided by deploying a decoy: “I find that, when travelling abroad alone, it is wise and actually discreet to take up with one well-chosen man on the journey. Otherwise, one is likely to be approached by numerous chance pesterers alone the line.”
At the end of the novel, January walks alone in London, enjoying an espresso, and the reader feels pleased that she is able to disentangle herself from the traumatic experience of the crash and from the other gender’s desires for her with few ill effects.
Treasure Island, upon its publication in 1883, garnered an enthusiastic readership of both children and adults. Even Henry James was a fan, calling it, in “The Art of Fiction,” a “delightful story” full of “murders, mysteries, islands of dreadful renown, hairbreadth escapes, miraculous coincidences and buried doubloons.” I can only echo James’s excitement. Treasure Island is packed with action that flies at a brisk clip, and there are many moments in which readers wonder how the protagonist, the child Jim Hawkins, can escape from the bind he’s gotten into.
The story of Treasure Island goes like this: Jim is the son of the proprietors of an out-of-the-way seaside inn with a notable guest: a dirty, foul-tempered old sailor who seems to be hiding from something. The “something” arrives in the form of his old pirate friends, who want to get their hands on his treasure map. Jim’s father has just died, and Jim and his mother must take what they are owed from the old sailor, who has dropped dead of a stroke, before the pirates return. They do so just in time, and Jim also seizes a bound packet of papers to “square the count” and settle the sailor’s debt. The pirates descend on the inn and find the papers gone. Jim and two guardians, the squire and the doctor, discover that the papers include the pirate treasure map and outfit a ship, the Hispaniola, to retrieve the treasure. The squire, who picks the sailors, does a poor job: over half the crew members are pirates, including the one-legged cook, Long John Silver, and Silver’s constant companion, the parrot Captain Flint, named for the captain of the pirate ship that amassed the buried treasure. Jim overhears the pirates plotting mutiny on the ship, and there is a standoff both on the ship and on the island. The good guys successfully fight the pirates with the help of Ben Gunn, a pirate who was cruelly marooned on the island several years before. Hawkins does many brave things and many foolhardy things, and many brave and foolhardy things, such as single-handedly, in a coracle, reclaiming the Hispaniola, which had been taken by the pirates. The novel ends with Hawkins shuddering at the memory of Silver’s parrot’s refrain, “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!”
James’s list of the things he likes about Treasure Island focuses on plot and setting, but what I find truly remarkable about this short novel is its characterization, particularly of the antagonist Long John Silver, the ringleader of the pirates who try to reclaim their treasure. Jim first meets Silver at Silver’s tavern and describes him as follows:
His left leg was cut off close by the hip, and under the left shoulder he carried a crutch, which he managed with wonderful dexterity, hopping about upon it like a bird. He was very tall and strong, with a face as big as a ham—plain and pale, but intelligent and smiling. Indeed, he seemed in the most cheerful spirits, whistling as he moved about among the tables, with a merry word or a slap on the shoulder for the more favoured of his guests.
Already the paradoxes in Silver become apparent. He is hobbled by a missing leg but is still big, powerful and fast. His face speaks of illness, but his manner is all hale and hearty. Later, Silver will break a man’s back with that crutch, but for the time being he impresses Jim favorably, treating him not as a child but as an equal. Even the doctor, the wisest man in the novel, is fooled, telling the squire “John Silver suits me.” When Jim overhears Silver talking mutinously, he’s especially hurt that Silver uses the same complimentary language with the sailor he’s trying to win over to his side as he used with Jim, “smart as paint.” Though Silver leads the mutineers, he’s also adept at determining where his best chances lie. He presses the advantage when he has it, but upon losing it he is quick to do an about-face if a better outcome beckons. He wouldn’t hesitate to kill Jim, until he learns that the mutiny is going poorly, and then he sells out his friends, telling Jim, “As for that lot and their council, mark me, they’re outright fools and cowards. I’ll save your life—if so be as I can—from them. But, see here, Jim—tit for tat—you save Long John from swinging.” He is terrifying because he is so convincing in each of his guises, and he’s absolutely unburdened by morality or loyalty. Silver’s machinations work, and, unlike his confederates, who are all killed or marooned, he receives a ride back to the mainland. He escapes the ship before he can be brought to trial, swimming ably despite his game leg, Captain Flint no doubt still perched on his shoulder.
For all the swashbuckling adventure, Treasure Island is ultimately a conservative book. No class structures are upset. The good guys emerge from their adventure alive, with the loot. The mutineers all suffer, to various degrees. Only one blackguard, the irrepressible Silver, goes unpunished. He’s the most thrilling thing about the book, the one bit that seems to knock the story out of its moral orbit.
In Treasure Island!!! (2012) by Sara Levine, the unnamed protagonist comes into conflict with her personal healer, Beverly Flowers, when Beverly offers a reading of Treasure Island that differs from the protagonist’s. The protagonist, a woman in her midtwenties who does not have a strong life plan, becomes obsessed with Treasure Island and the character of Jim Hawkins in particular. Bev, on the other hand, is a Silver partisan:
‘Now there’s the center of your novel. Charismatic personality, repellent morally speaking, and it’s amazing how he gets around on that one leg. Remember? Jim knows he should be wary of Silver, but he’s drawn to him for good reasons.’
The protagonist, on the other hand, views Jim Hawkins as a role model. Jim, for her, embodies four “Core Values”: “BOLDNESS, RESOLUTION, INDEPENDENCE and HORN-BLOWING.” The first three are self-explanatory, but we never quite learn what horn-blowing means. Is the horn literal or not? It’s a mystery, and horns do not play a significant part in Treasure Island, suggesting that the protagonist of Treasure Island!!! is doing some idiosyncratic close reading.
The protagonist’s life is not going well at the beginning of the novel, which is told in very short chapters that mirror her attention span. She works as a clerk at a “pet library,” a small business that allows patrons to check out dogs, cats, and hamsters. She has a boyfriend she’s indifferent about who works in tech support. She has one friend, who is a pet sitter. They all have college degrees, and their shared underemployment suggests that the protagonist’s lack of success professionally is not a personal problem but a societal one. The recent economic collapse has shut off a whole generation from lucrative, engaging employment.
Over the course of the novel, the protagonist makes a series of rash and harmful decisions under the guise of acting boldly and independently, as she believes Hawkins would. She steals money at work in order to buy a parrot named Little Richard. She is fired from her job and refuses to find a new one. She sponges off her boyfriend until he kicks her out; then she refuses to leave, claiming that she’s laying siege to the apartment, as a pirate might. She lands at her parents’ house, where she shares a bedroom with her parrot, who has a fondness for advertising slogans. “It’s big, it’s hot, it’s back,” he screeches, rather than “Steer the boat, girlfriend,” as she’d prefer. She reveals her sister’s affair with a coworker of their father’s, which causes a terrible breach in the family. She gets fed up with the parrot’s talking and poisons him using Xanax-laced mac and cheese, and when that proves too slow, suffocates him with a T.J. Maxx bag. Yes, really. Afterward she doesn’t feel bad exactly (she never feels bad), but there is a hesitation. She describes the sensation as “sweet grief” and reflects that she “was surprised at how complicated it feels to lose somebody.” She neglects to remind herself that she is the instrument of the loss. Her family discovers that she killed the parrot and stages an intervention, demonstrating just how much her family and ex-boyfriend are paragons of kindness and love. The scope in Treasure Island!!! is narrowed by the protagonist’s difficulty as a character. Only a few mellow souls have the patience to stick with her.
The protagonist is that rare breed of character, a female antihero. Male antiheroes are a dime a dozen—Humbert Humbert, Macbeth, Satan. If a male antihero offers the pleasure of watching someone violate rules and mores to allow for the indulgence of their worst impulses, a female antihero offers a double pleasure, for the limits of acceptable behavior for women remain so circumscribed. Women are supposed to be sensitive to the needs of others. They are supposed to nurture. Get a load of the protagonist, reflecting on her ex-boyfriend: “I suspected he had a work ethic I wasn’t interested in exploring,” and on the calfskin handbag he bought her: “‘Don’t think he chose it, Rena. He was going to get flowers. I redirected him,” and on mental health: “It is possible to think of my life, up to the age of twenty-five, as a series of therapists I successfully dodged,” and on receiving bad news from her one friend: “I put down my sandwich and laughed. ‘I thought you were going to tell me something horrible! I mean, for me,’” and on a doctor who refused to give her Xanax: “she had repulsed me like she would have any other patient. It was enough to make a person feel . . . generic.”
The protagonist’s affinity for Jim speaks to her longing for her childhood. She’s dissatisfied with her life, and when she reminisces fondly, it’s about grade school, when she could do fun things like try on her friend’s beautiful jewelry or fill notebooks with observations about the other little girls’ looks. Jim is able to venture boldly and never suffers for it. Levine’s protagonist is scared, even, to drive a car. She longs for a consequence-free series of adventures that might allow her to skim across the surface of her life, but by the novel’s end she has learned that as one ages one also must sink into whatever lies below.
The protagonist dismisses Long John Silver when her healer Beverly itemizes his attractions, but what readers come to realize is that Beverly is inadvertently describing the protagonist herself. She’s the one with the parrot (until his untimely demise). She’s the villain in the lives of the characters around her. She’s the one who has a “charismatic personality” but is “repellent morally speaking.” Just as Jim Hawkins is with Silver, we readers are “drawn to [her] for good reason.” Her lack of moral compass, her cruel sense of humor, and her confusion about how to live in the world make her a singularity in the small circle of characters who can stand to be around her.
I grew up in a small town and have gone on to live in big cities, and I’ve always suspected that small towns breed a particular kind of unselfconscious eccentricity (Sherwood Anderson’s “grotesques,” for example), which is able to blossom because there aren’t enough people around for everyone to get a sense of how most folks act. The sample set is just too small. In a big city, eccentricity tends to be cultivated, a desire to set oneself apart from the crush of people who all behave in the same sorts of ways. The small town eccentric doesn’t know he’s eccentric, and that is what makes him so compelling—a character. The desert island, then, seems to erase this obligation to social conventions even more thoroughly, leaving each person free to act just as he or she likes, making it an ideal stage for big, beautiful, weird characters.
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