February 2007 Archives

The Astonishing Life Of Octavian Nothing

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M. T. Anderson
Candlewick Books
Jan 2007
An outstanding novel.

The first of two volumes, its full title is The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor To The Nation - Volume 1: The Pox Party. I already tell everyone I meet to read this author's fantastic satirical novel, Feed, and now I shall be telling them to read this.
I dare say young readers - especially those unfamiliar with Feed and Anderson's other novels - may struggle to get into it, fearful that the formal eighteenth century diction and grammar of Octavian's narrative might never develop into a compelling story. But they will soon be fascinated by the narrator's realtionship with his young teenage mother and by all the goings-on at the College of Lucidity, where Octavian is treated to a trial education of letters and manners.

Eventually both the boy and the mother fall victim to another trial involving smallpox. Dr Trefusis observes at one point during this harrowing section of the book, "When I peer into the reaches of the most distant futurity, I fear that even in some unseen epock when there are colonies even upon the moon itself, there shall still be gatherings like this, where the young, blinded by privilege, shall dance and giggle and compare their poxy legions." It is just that 'most distant futurity' which Andersen describes (in a far different prose) in Feed.

Octavian's own narrative comes to an abrupt halt three quarters of the way through the novel, at a moment of great heartbreak, and it is a tribute to Andersen's skill and confidence as a stylist that the miscellany of documents and correspondence that fills most of the remaining part of this first volume holds the reader riveted until Octavian's return.

I haven't mentioned yet that Octavian is a black child born to an African mother; that the book is about slavery and the events leading up to the War of Independence. Those are the themes. And Andersen's book will remain a classic treatment of slavery and the birth of the American nation for a very long time to come.