Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing

So, I'm at the far end of the bandwagon when it comes to reading M.T. Anderson's National Book Award winning book, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, but read it I have. In one long afternoon. Yes, it's that's absorbing...and that much of a page-turner.

But that said--did I enjoy it? Well, kindasortamaybe.

First it must be noted that to write and publish a book written in a sort of 18th century Johnsonian voice, full of classical literary allusions, which depends greatly upon the philosophy of Rousseau for its plot--well, that's a pretty great achievement. To publish this book as a YA novel--well, that's almost a miracle.

I was a pretty advanced reader for my age, well steeped in classical mythology. I knew well who the Emperor Nero was; all about the Battle of Breed's Hill; and I may have even known what a banyan was. (I was a rather obnoxiously informed child.) But I don't know if I could have read this book. Not because of the language, which is difficult, yes, but not insurmountably so. Not because of the details--you don't have to know what a banyan is to follow the plot--but because of the violence.

Octavian Nothing is a very violent book. Sieur Anderson pulls no punches with his depiction of colonial life. The realities of slavery, battle, sickness and sanitation are all here.

This is a good thing. We oft tend to look back on history as a charming old timey place, where old timey people did quaint old timey things. Our historical imaginations are fed via movies and television, where battles are smoky bloodless affairs, slaves shuck and jive happily, and women bow to the obvious strength of their male protectors. Our historical imaginations are fed on shreds of the past--the shiny clean shreds. True, more recently movies and museums have tried to show the past in a more honest and dirty light, but with mixed success and still in a minority. Take Williamsburg, the Colonial American history theme park, where the streets are paved and clean, the smells flowery, and the interpreters--painstakingly dressed in historical accurate clothing--mighty clean. Williamsburg has introduced slaves into their interpretation, but in a neat and tidy way. Some years ago when they held a slave auction--oh boy.

The truth hurts.

Octavian Nothing is a painful book. It's also a complicated book--because the story it seeks to tell is a complicated one. The interplay between revolutionary fervor, race relations, benevolent patriarchy, religious freedom, gender politics makes the Colonial period of American history a complicated time to understand. On the surface, it's very straightforward--Give me Liberty or Give me Death.. We hold these truths to be self-evident...Don't tread on me. But liberty for who--white land-owners? women? black men? Indians? What truths--Religious freedom? Fiscal freedom? Political freedom?

Octavian Nothing raises these questions and many many others, and attempts, via the person of Octavian himself, to answer them. They are important questions and should be pondered at length by all Americans. The Colonial period is the American cradle; from it springs our entire history. Without trying to understand that history we can't understand ourselves. Slavery, in particular, (that "peculiar institution") must be considered; technically abolished over one hundred years ago, it still casts a cold shadow over us today.

Back to my earlier question...did I enjoy the book? I did not. Like castor oil, it's good for you, but you are going to have to choke it down. Can one enjoy a book in which a young black boy is enslaved, abused, tormented, tortured? No, of course not. It's powerful, and compelling, and painful, and thoughtful, but not enjoyable.

Every American adult should read Octavian Nothing tomorrow--maybe even today. It's that important.

But I'm not sure I can recommend it to kids. Despite my salad days advanced reading habits, I think some of the book's more horrific scenes would have given me nightmares. And frankly, I can't imagine a kid wanting to plough through the philosophy and science--even the nerdiest kid, I would think, would draw the line at Latin translation. Maybe not--maybe I underestimate nerdy kids. In fact, I'd like to know what kids who have read the book thought about it. I'd like to know what adults who read it thought of it, too...

(ps. extra points to Sieur Anderson for writing a historical novel that wasn't riddled with historical inaccuracies! I only caught tiny little thing, which I'm not 100 percent sure was an anachronism anyway. I'm highly susceptible to shoddy historical research; nothing will make me throw a book across the room faster than a historical howler, so I'm always excited to find a book where the author actually did his research!)


Henry said...

Excellent review of a book I think highly of. Regarding its suitability to children, I believe I have read a quote from the author stating that he would not recommend the book for anyone younger than seventeen. That pretty much elminates all children. By YA, I suppose Anderson defines it in this book's case as 'for adults on the youngish side'.

Ysabeau Wilce said...

Good advice from Sieur Anderson. But I've found the book in the Teen Fic section of bookstores, so I assume that's where it's being marketed. And the fact that the National Book Award put in the "Young People's" category makes me think that they also consider it basically a kidlit book. If so, too bad because I think it's a book that all adults should read.

Unknown said...

I got up to a certain point in this book a few months ago....and lost interest. Now I feel incredibly guilty about admitting such a fact, but that's what I thought of the book.

Unknown said...

I think I'll pick it up and give it a try, although I fear I'm even more upset by downer books nowadays than I was when I was a kid. I read Manchild in the Promised Land and Another Country at age 10 without ill effect. On the other hand, I also attempted The Painted Bird at the same age and have never ... quite ... recovered.

Unknown said...

I loved loved loved loved this book. Extraordinarily moving. Just brilliant.

I've asked some librarians about teen responses to it and they say that some of the smart, well-read kids of 14+ have been really into it.


Ysabeau Wilce said...

Josh--don't feel guilty if you didn't like Octavian Nothing. You can't like all books...! Have you read any of Allan Eckhart's books? Wilderness War, The Frontiersmen, & The Conquerers are the first three in the series. They are narrative histories of the westward expansion in the 18th century and I think you would like them very much. Your library probably has them.