“Octavian Nothing” by M.T. Anderson
Extraordinary novel about a young African slave revises the American Revolution (from the New York Times Book Review)
In 1975, from a canoe floating in the Concord River, the young M. T. Anderson and his parents watched a bicentennial re-enactment of the confrontation between rebels and redcoats at the Old North Bridge. Years later he wondered what it would have been like to be alive on that day when the final outcome of the Revolutionary War was still unclear. The result of those musings was, Anderson joked, “a 900-page two-volume historical epic for teens, written in a kind of unintelligible 18th-century Johnsonian Augustan prose by an obsessive neurotic who rarely leaves his house or even gets dressed.” The first volume of “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing” went on to win extraordinary praise and a National Book Award for juvenile literature.
That book, Volume 1 (“The Pox Party”), tells the story of an experiment by a group of American philosophers upon a black youth named Octavian in order to discover whether Africans are a separate species from white people. A skilled violinist and an able translator of Greek and Roman classics, Octavian is a petted prodigy happy with his lot until he slowly divines his status as a science experiment. In fact, Octavian is a slave. Hearing about a possibility of liberty as colonial hostilities break out, he escapes his keepers (at the wonderfully named “Novanglian College of Lucidity”) and joins American rebels who are about to attack Boston; but he is inadvertently betrayed and returned to the college, where he is horribly punished. Volume 1 ends with his escaping once more, planning to join up with the British.
When it appeared in 2006, this first volume of “Octavian Nothing” seemed like a comet out of nowhere — an impressive and profound story of race and revolution in America’s past. And the writing was dazzling: Anderson managed hundreds of pages in an authentically 18th-century prose style that upstaged even Mark Twain’s impersonations of Olde English in “The Prince and the Pauper.” Moreover, in an era when teenagers have been increasingly drawn to graphic novels, the book itself was interesting as an object: the narrative had to be traced through an archive of maps, newspaper excerpts, pages with words crossed out by a quill pen, diary entries, scientific reports and letters in various hands.
Volume 2, “The Kingdom on the Waves,” is even darker than its already dark predecessor. The central event of Volume 1 is a “pox party” where members of the college and their servants sequester themselves in a mansion outside Boston and undergo crude vaccinations against smallpox. What follows is something like Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”: nightly balls where occasionally a fevered unfortunate falls down with horrible sores and pustules, a mix of disease and decadence. Anderson loves that particular rhapsodic tone — what he calls the “gothic and fantastic” mood — and he gives full play to his enthusiasm in Volume 2.
Hoping to win his liberty by aiding the British, Octavian now secretly returns to a Boston under siege by the rebels; with looting and hunger, wanton sex in abandoned houses and nightly concerts staged while buildings burn, the town seems like Caligula’s playground. Hearing that Lord Dunmore will emancipate any slave who joins his Ethiopian Regiment and fights for the British, Octavian flees Boston and joins thousands of other runaways in Norfolk, Va. But Norfolk is besieged and set on fire; then the cowardly Lord Dunmore and company retreat to their ships, where they indulge in luxuries while smallpox ravages thousands belowdecks. That’s not to say that Octavian and his fellow black soldiers are virtuous victims; they, too, descend to heinous behavior when hunger forces them ashore to forage. The coup de grâce arrives when Lord Dunmore sells half the Ethiopian Regiment back into slavery, to recoup financial losses.
Summarizing such a sweeping and epic novel is a bit like saying “Moby-Dick” is about a fishing trip. Much of the grandeur is left out. Anderson’s stylistic accomplishments should be acknowledged, particularly the way he sustains an almost Homeric voice, as when Octavian resumes his chronicles: “Here commences my record — taken down in the hope that a record of such a struggle as here impends shall not be found uninteresting to the eye of future curiosity and the heart which thrills with compassion and is stirred by high deeds.”
Then there is Anderson’s suppleness of tone, as he slides from the comic in the opening pages (in a “Bert and I” sketch between a Yankee fisherman and a classics tutor who insists on referring to the man as Charon) to the tragic in the conclusion (where the deranged leader of the Novanglian College of Lucidity carries on like a broken Lear). Here, too, you will be amazed by how much Anderson seems to know — for example, about Africa, from the warrior-women of Dahomey to uses of the kola nut. And all this virtuosity — in Octavian’s voice, remember — is not showing off but serving the novel’s purposes. While the Novanglian “philosophers” relied on the ideas of Locke in their experiment, believing they were writing upon the boy’s “tabula rasa,” the slaveholders and their racism worked in the opposite way, by erasing Africans to a blankness so that, in an important moment of self-recognition, our hero chooses his own last name and henceforth is known as Octavian Nothing.
Looking back at his two volumes in a concluding author’s note, Anderson observes that the 900 pages have essentially been a meditation on the word “liberty.” It was a term bandied about so much during the Revolution that it became meaningless: those who signed the Declaration of Independence were slaveholders whose notion of liberty included the freedom to own slaves; and the British offer of emancipation was motivated not by humanitarian concern but by strategy and double-dealing. But before Anderson can conclude his essay with a defeated “pox on all your houses,” an indefatigable “nevertheless” insinuates itself. He concedes that people were willing to die for that ambiguous word and we do enjoy its benefits today to the extent we do not fear the knock on the door.
So, the very last line of this otherwise nihilistic novel is a lingering note of hope in which we hear a deliberate echo of “Huckleberry Finn,” with Octavian resolving to light out for the territories. Besides Twain we can also hear in this book echoes of Melville (especially “Benito Cereno”) and Hawthorne (“My Kinsman, Major Molineux”). It may also be the only adolescent novel to liberally quote from Hobbes and Heraclitus. The breadth of references is so sweeping that the novel seems symphonic.
It may be hard to conceive of making the claim about a young adult book, but I believe “Octavian Nothing” will someday be recognized as a novel of the first rank, the kind of monumental work Italo Calvino called “encyclopedic” in the way it sweeps up history into a comprehensive and deeply textured pattern. If the book has a shortcoming, it is Anderson’s occasional wordiness when he is bent on creating moody atmospherics by piling on metaphors and tours d’horizon that begin in Accra and end in Rappahannock. On the other hand, “Moby-Dick,” another monumental work, is sometimes loose and baggy too.
Originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (November 7, 2008).
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