Book of the Week - The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing

The Astonishing Life of Ocatvian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Volume 1: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson

Anderson has a marvelous ear for language. It's quite plain that he enjoys creating and manipulating language to fit the different kinds of books he writes, and never once does he talk down to his readers. He assumes that the discerning and intelligent reader will understand his books and Octavian Nothing is no different.

The novel is set in 1760's in Boston, where Octavian and his mother - a West African princess - live at the Novanglian College of Lucidity, reminding me a lot of the college in Gulliver's Travels. It soon becomes clear that Octavian and his mother are not treated kindly out of any respect, but rather for science, they are in fact guineau pigs for these mens desire to understand and classify blacks. Octavian is taught to play violin, Latin, Greek, science, medicine, mathematics. His excrement and food intake are tallied and weighed. It takes Octavian a few years to realize that despite all the wonderful clothes and food, he is nothing more than a slave, a fact that becomes apparent when he dares defy their financier of the college.

Despite Octavian’s genuine desire to prove his abilities, the results of this experiment have of course been predetermined by the prejudices of the experimenters (whose conclusions about the inferiority of the African echo beliefs held by real historical figures like David Hume and Thomas Jefferson, as Anderson points out in an afterword).

Anderson perfectly captures the narrative style of an 18th-century book, with all the English vanacular of the time period. Sentences like, "How doth all that seeks to rise burn itself to nothing," and "She [my mother] hearkened little to the insinuations of flattery or the curtseys of obsequiousness, but returned all idle, pretty chatter on its own coin," are enough to make any writer swoon. The violence, which was also very accurate, was sometimes too intense even for this reader.

One of the most disturbing sections concerns the “pox party” of the subtitle, in which a select group of New England notables accept the college’s invitation to undergo inoculation against the smallpox raging through the colonies — a house party that will include games of whist and dancing, and “a glass jar full of contaminate matter from the pox-sores of the dead.” Such parties were popular at the time, despite the risk of disfigurement or death.

As a child, Octavian says, he was taught the importance of observation: “precise in notation, acute in investigation and rational in inference.” These lessons could be grim — for example, when the men of the college pet a dog and then drown it to see how long it takes to die, or feed alley cats and then drop them from a scaffold to determine “the height from which cats no longer catch themselves, but shatter.” Octavian’s own battle between rage and reason is resolved on the side of reason, possibly at some cost to the reader’s ability to identify with him.

Despite all this though, I found that the story languished under such heavy words. The beginning was so slow that I found myself beginning again, twice, in order to fully grasp the story. The fancy language was not difficult to understand but it does require the reader to slow down, possibly even look up a word or two in the dictionary when necessary. There were many times in the book where I wondered where when the story would actually begin. The Pox Party subplot does begin until halfway through the book. Some may argue that the backstory was necessary, however I find myself confused as to why we needed nearly 180 pages to set up this character and his life, when I understood completely by page 50. Don't get me wrong, the book was beautifully done, but I feel some of the story may have been lost amidst the precision of language and Anderson's dedication to make the story as historically accurate as possible.