23 October 2006

Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation; vol. 1: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson

My experiment in reading YA novels did not begin particularly well. I got 60 pages into A Drowned Maiden's Hair and found myself resenting the book because it was such a slog to get through, and any time I feel this way, I know that a combination of the book's qualities and my mood are leading toward nothing good for either of us, and so I stopped. It may be a perfectly good book for kids, but it was definitely not a perfectly good book for me.

I then looked at The Black Tattoo, but it didn't really catch my attention, so I didn't read far, and instead moved on to other books. I may return to it, I may not.

Then Meghan McCarron borrowed the advanced copy of Octavian Nothing that I've had since Kelly Link and Gwenda Bond insisted I pick it up at BEA, and she insisted I would enjoy it.

Meghan was right. The book fully titled The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation; vol. 1: The Pox Party is among the best books I've read in the last few years. Not among the best books for kids that I've read in the last few years, because that would be an easy group to be at the head of, but among the best books of any sort, for anyone.

Previously, I had only read Anderson's novel Thirsty, which I thought was pretty good as far as books for kids go, but it didn't feel particularly substantial, and I had a mixed opinion of the ending, which seemed to me simultaneously brave and a cop-out.

Octavian Nothing is a novel of substance, and nothing in it feels like a cop-out. It amazes me that this book can be marketed to a young adult audience, because it is written in the diction of the 18th century, sometimes densely so, making the reading of it seem at times more like reading Mason & Dixon than the average Newbery Award winner. I'm sure the book would have been published had Anderson not written anything else, but I wonder if the reason it has been published as YA is simply because that is an audience Anderson already has access to -- there is simply nothing, other than the narrator's age, that makes this a book that must be sold to people under the age of 20, and yet is the marketing category into which it is being placed. I don't mean to suggest this is a bad thing, and it may, in fact, be better than the alternative, because Candlewick Press has given it real attention and turned the text into a lovely physical artifact -- even the ARC is graceful.

I don't mean to linger too long on the vagaries and oddities of marketing in these confused times, and my comments above may reflect more of my ignorance of the YA category than anything else. Regardless of how it is sold, Octavian Nothing is an astounding book. It tells the story of a slave before and during the American Revolution, a boy whose mother is brought to the colonies from Africa and sold, along with her young son, to a society of scientists that has some similarities to the American Philosophical Society and its ilk. He and his mother become part of a strange experiment, and the nature of that experiment changes over the course of the novel, until eventually Octavian escapes and joins a militia fighting against the British. The story is episodic and picaresque, the many years of events linked together through the authority of Anderson's narrative voice, which is mostly built from Octavian's own words, though as the tale progresses more and more other documents are inserted, including newspaper clippings and letters from various other characters. Linking it all, too, are themes of freedom and restraint, of liberty and slavery, science and myth, knowledge and ignorance. These themes are handled deftly -- inextricable from the story and characters, yet always present, emerging from the conversations and events in ways far more complex than in even many heralded novels about such subjects. Our knowledge of history makes the events even more poignant, because we know that any victory Octavian can achieve for himself will be within the context of a society that would maintain the institution for slavery for nearly another century, and violent racism for much longer.

Complexity of themes and ideas is certainly welcome, but it is the quality of writing and structure that differentiates the well-intentioned novel from the great. Octavian Nothing is intelligently structured and brilliantly, beautifully written. For instance, these paragraphs from early in the book:
A man in a topiary maze cannot judge of the twistings and turnings, and which avenue might lead him to the heart; while one who stands above, on some pleasant prospect, looking down upon the labyrinth, is reduced to watching the bewildered circumnavigations of the tiny victim through obvious coils -- as the gods, perhaps, looked down on besieged and blood-sprayed Troy from the safety of their couches, and thought mortals weak and foolish while they themselves reclined in comfort, and had only to snap to call Ganymede to their side with nectar decanted.

So I, now, with the vantage of years, am sensible of my foolishness, my blindness, as a child. I cannot think of my blunders without shriveling of the inward parts -- not merely the desiccation attendant on shame, but also the aggravation of remorse that I did not demand more explanation, that I did not sooner take my mother by the hand and--

I do not know what I regret. I sit with my pen, and cannot find an end to that sentence.

I do not know what we may do, to know another better.
The progression of the diction there is what most thrills me, because the complexity of the first paragraph demonstrates Octavian's struggle to frame and express his feelings, and then the passage ends in a simplicity that reflects "the desiccation attendant on shame" and reveals the sadness hiding beneath the learned thought. What begins as a fine mimicry by Anderson of 18th century writing ends in utterly contemporary plainness, and this development mirrors the book's own balancing act: the evocation of a lost time to cause readers to reflect on their own era, their own situations and lives. Similarly, it mirrors the task we participate in as readers: with each page, we learn new things, we piece together new clues, we make connections that reveal the atrocities underlying the best-dressed and most-educated parts of society. The language finally implodes in the face of the worst crimes, filling the pages with blotted-out words, a choice that, had the material been less sensitively handled, would have been tricksy and clever, but is instead as powerful (and perhaps more powerful) than anything Anderson could have written.

I cannot resist ending these notes with words from the book itself, this time from the last pages:
They told me of substance and form; they told me of matter, of its consistency as a fluxion of minute, swarming atomies, as Democritus had writ; they told me of shape and essence; they told me of the motion of light, that it was the constant expenditure of particles flying off the surfaces of things; they told me of color, that it was an illusion of the eye, an event in the perceiver's mind, not in the object; they told me that color had no reality; indeed, they told me that color did not inhere in a physical body any more than pain was in a needle.

And then they imprisoned me in darkness; and though there was no color there, I was still black, and they were still white; and for that, they bound and gagged me.


  1. Matt: I saw Meg's write up for this book and tried to get it yesterday. The local Barnes and Noble person told me that they'd only ordered 1 copy of it and didn't know where it was. I'd very much like to check it out -- with an eye toward maybe incorporating it into my Early American Lit class. I sometimes use contemporary works like Paul Difillippo's story about Cotten Mather, "Observable Things." I hope to have the book by the end of the week. Your write up has further convinced me.

    jeff ford

  2. Another book that, similarly, shouldn't be just marketed at YA is Markus Zusak's astounding The Book Thief.

    I'll have to check out the Anderson - sounds like the kind of thing I'd be into. (I have two other books of his lying around here somewhere - The Game of Sunken Places and Feed.)

    1. I've read THE BOOK THIEF, and it was wonderful. OCTAVIAN NOTHING, however, was a tedious read that, though written well, seemed to bore me at many points. Especially in the middle, when the book was composed of letters that spoke of Octavian from another person's point of view, I felt I was counting down the pages until the conclusion of the novel. Nonetheless, I cannot disagree that the book brought forth important messages about freedom and knowledge.

      Please keep in mind that I read both of these books for middle school advanced reading classes and I do suppose that my level of understanding may be below adults reading this. Granted, of course, that these books are indeed written for teens my age, I don't think that should be an issue. Nobody in my class has enjoyed reading OCTAVIAN NOTHING, so if adults find it more intriguing, perhaps it should have been written for them instead.

  3. If I had another copy, Jeff, I'd send it to you immediately, because I thought of you many times as I read. I'll be very curious to know what you make of it.

  4. I have been looking forward to this book since I first heard of its existence, because I had loved M.T. Anderson's "Watch and Wake" (after an episode in Apuleius' Metamorphoses) and now I am decided. Anyone who writes like that, I need to read. Thanks!

  5. Oh, yes, it's a great book. Jeff, it would fit v. well into your class I bet; also worth a look in this light (& the book that Anderson's most reminded me of) is John Edgar Wideman's "The Cattle Killing."

  6. What a wonderful review, Matt. I held off reading it until I'd read the book because I know how you loves the spoilerage. And wow is it amazing. Anderson deserves all the accolades he gets. Every single one. I agree with all you say about Octavian. Thank you!

    Just one thing:
    I don't mean to linger too long on the vagaries and oddities of marketing in these confused times, and my comments above may reflect more of my ignorance of the YA category than anything else.

    Yes, Matt, they absolutely do.

  7. Yes, Matt, they absolutely do.

    Glad to be right! I actually dithered when writing the review about whether to say that or not, but decided to put it in for a couple reasons -- first, as a way to reassure people who see the book shelved with the "children's books" that this is one very much worth an adult's attention, and also to try to find out from more knowledgeable people how such a thing can happen, because it's wonderful that such complex, even difficult writing can be marketed for a non-adult audience. I get jaded spending so much time in a school, because much of what we do is all about insulting the intelligence of kids, and so to see publishers aiming for intelligence, even encouraging it -- well, it's nearly enough to restore my faith in humanity. Or something.

  8. I am a sixth grader, and I read Octavian Nothing for a book club at my school. It was one of the best books I have ever read, one of those books that you don't forget for a long time. I laughed out loud when I read the paragraph that starts at the bottom of page 298, and ends at the top of page 299. I am writing a book review of the book, and hope to post it on my block, Limpid Cogitation (if the link doesn't work, the URL is www.curlyfurn.blogspot.com).

  9. I am a junior and am re-reading this book for the up-teenth time. The first time I read it I had difficulty appreciating the beauty of the 18th century dialect but I loved the message that it was able to portray despite the language barrier. Now I am reading it for an AP Lit class and one of my teachers is considering it for future assignments in the years to come. It is an instant classic and a book I will never forget.

    "How doth all that seeks to rise burn itself to nothing."

  10. Awesome! If I were still teaching AP, I'd probably use it, too. Or for an American Lit class, where it's perfect. I've actually been thinking of using it for a college course in the future. There are hardly any other books I've read that I can think of so many great audiences for.

    And right now I'm reading the sequel, which is also wonderful.