much ado about octavian nothing
a children's book that won't be read by children
by fred goodridge
Last Christmas season, a friend was shopping at a local bookseller. Upon exiting the store, she noticed a parcel in tatters in the parking lot, previously run over by a passing vehicle. From this heap she retrieved a cookbook, which she kept, along with a hardcover novel, which she gave to me. I examined the book: it seemed unremarkable, save for the gold-leaf sticker announcing that the title had won the National Book Award; and the disturbing dust cover illustration, of a young man in colonial dress with an iron mask covering his face. Terrified orbits peered from the eyeholes of the mask.
This was The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume One: The Pox Party, by M.T. Anderson.
I had heard of neither the title nor Mr. Anderson. Having more than enough to read already, and skeptical of a book acquired in so serendipitous a manner, I placed it on the bedstand, half-heartedly promising to get to it soon enough. [There is already a milk crate full of books to "get to" on the other side of the bedroom.] I finally began reading it last week with admittedly tepid interest, but with a sort of obligatory, "well, it did win the National Book Award" mindset.
From the first atmospheric sentence - I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees. - I was hooked. I was also startled fully: Octavian Nothing is a masterful work of painstaking intellect and affect, containing as it does, humor and horror in equal measure. I devoured it as I have few books in recent memory.
The novel tells the tale of Octavian and his mother, Cassiopeia, African royalty (?) and now slaves, who have been purchased from a slave ship's cargo. They live in pre-Revolutionary Boston, in a house run by "rational philosophers" from the Novanglian College of Lucidity. As the book progresses, we learn that Octavian and his mother are the subjects of a clinical experiment - a trial in which the College seeks to determine whether a child from Africa, offered the same privileges as a white child, can be educated with equal success. As things move along, and the tensions between the colonists and Britain mount, the sociology of slavery and the revolution and human equality are examined in the context of the protagonists, their keepers, and the townspeople preparing for war. There are plot twists aplenty, along with social satire, instances of true heroism, terrific expository writing, and scenes of alarming brutality. It is a marvel.
The book is written in well-nigh perfect 18th century prose; think Tobias Smollet, or The Sot-Weed Factor without the parody and you're there. Aside from the style, the vocabulary is daunting for even the most ardent reader, containing such arcana as objurgation, chirurgical, philomel, manumit, ataraxia, variolation, coffles, pluck and numbles. And there are a hundred more, including "hypped" and "actants", which took some serious drilling to identify.
It is also helpful for the reader to be conversant with the identities and works of writers of classical antiquity; have a working knowledge of 18th century conversation, dress, and customs; be familiar with the terminology of ground and naval warfare and weaponry; and be able to translate Greek and Latin phrases out of context.
About 30 pages into this book, I began to wonder about Mr. Anderson and the National Book Award. What crazy band of judges picked this esoteric masterpiece for the prize? So I looked it up:
Octavian Nothing won the National Book Award for Young People. I went back to the book: to my bewilderment, there it was, in tiny print, on the dust jacket, "A Junior Literary Guild Selection. Ages 14 and up." And Mr. Anderson is a childrens' book author.
I am completely perplexed. I admit, I know next to nothing about current juvenile fiction, save a waving acquaintance with Harry Potter, along with titles I've looked at casually in bookstores. But as the parent of teenage twins, and the observer of scores of other teens, I am confounded to think that today's adolescent could ever possibly embrace this book.
As an exercise, I went back and sampled my teens' summer reading lists for the last two years. The Secret Life of Bees. Angela's Ashes. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Fine titles all, to be sure, but all written in the last 10 years, and none containing even an iota of subject matter that could possibly prepare them for Octavian.
This discussion is not a screed to decry the failure of the middle and high school literary curriculum, nor is it an indictment of the general illiteracy of today's iPod-addled youngsters. It is, rather, a howl of wonderment: how would I react today, were I seventeen, to the tsunami of media that buries young people daily - music, video, cable television, blogs, IM, chat rooms - what would I choose? Certainly not the books I was assigned in high school: The Scarlet Pimpernel, David Copperfield, Jonathan Wild, and similar creaky, outmoded examples of "good writing." It seems literature has long since been archived to college campuses and the intellectuals, which I suppose is its predictable fate in an image-oriented, rather than linear, culture.
But where does all this leave Octavian, a book that should be read by young and old alike, but is being marketed exclusively to teens? And what teens will ever read it? The prep school pencil-necks, urged (or commanded) to do so as a reading assignment? The social outcast, the geek, alone in the bookstore on a Saturday night, who is drawn, as I was, by the unsettling image of the boy in the iron mask on the cover? Or perhaps the jaded Hogwart grad, prowling around for escape between Potter installments? Even if it is all of these, and more, they are certainly not robust enough in number to form a legion of admirers.
In an interview, Anderson said that Octavian took him four years to write, including two years of research and a thousand pages of note-taking. He also promises that there will indeed be a Volume II (in October 2008), picking up Octavian where we left him at the end of Volume I, "flee[ing] across the bay toward the lights of the beleaguered city."
Anderson may be well advised to coax his publisher and advertisers to broaden their target markets, as Octavian Nothing is a book that deserves to be read (and re-read) for the beauty of its language, and for what it says about its period, as well as the one we live in now.
Only not by teenagers.
“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure." [Dr. Johnson] Writer, raconteur, philologist, father, cinéaste, no-good peacenik, media idiot. Spent a good many years waiting to be recognized for my great genius. Still waiting.
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2.1.07 @ 11:34a
This sounds like a pretty compelling read, Fred. Going to ask my own teenager about it tonight.
I'm kind of surprised at what's on the reading lists of the "kids these days" (at least the ones in my own acquaintance.) While the school-supplied lists tend to the classics we remember from high school (Steinbeck, Hawthorne, etc.) the personal reading seems to suddenly have switched from mainstream novels to alternative religion, underground philosophy and genuine literature.
2.2.07 @ 11:30a
Wow, Fred, this sounds incredibly intriguing. I'm wondering if I have the brain capactity for it.
2.2.07 @ 12:34p
Sounds positively Pynchonian, actually. Certainly in league with Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, a series both dazzling in its breadth and cumbersome in its weight.
Still, I have a Borders gift cert left over from Xmas so I may have to hunt this down.
2.2.07 @ 2:11p
That sounds awesome!
2.2.07 @ 4:17p
Looks super cool! Jeez, I hope I haven't grown up too much so I can still get it.
4.2.07 @ 4:28p
Wow, I have to check this out. I'm even going to put it near the top of my massive "get to it" pile. Thanks!