Thursday, February 5, 2009

"Octavian Nothing" by M.T. Anderson

Or, more accurately: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation (Volume #1: The Pox Party)

Summary: Octavian is raised with his mother in the College of Lucidity, a house of scholars. Slowly, Octavian and the reader learn that Octavian is there not as an academic, but as a research subject. He is a slave in the time shortly before the American Revolution and the scholars are raising him in a full "European" education to analyze the mental capacities of an African. As Octavian becomes aware of the reality of his position, the house begins to fail and Octavian is thrust fully into the life of a slave.

Musings: Octavian Nothing is presented as a children's (young adult) book, but I found it much the opposite. The first half of the book is recounted from Octavian's point of view, and his writing, a combination of his scholarly upbringing and the time period, is vocabulary-dense and philosophical. The second half is a collection of letters from soldiers, also written in a colonial style, this time with the added hazard of colonial punctuation. I find it hard to believe any but a very advanced high school student would be able to enjoy the book. Even I had occasionally had difficulty and had to reread sections.

Octavian is raised by the scholars as an Observant, and because of this, he maintains a calm detachment from much of what happens. Although this gives the reader insight into the way in which his upbringing has affected him, it also results in Octavian appearing to lack personality for much of the novel. Because he's the protagonist of the book, I wanted him to succeed, but I felt like I knew little of him as a round character. He was a mirror in which he reflected what happened to him with little emotion or biased commentary.

The most compelling part of the novel was its description of the hypocrisy of the budding American nation. Whereas the College scholars support the American Revolution and denounce the unjust repression of the American people by the British government, they also vigorously maintain the institution of slavery and their entitlement to their human "property." Octavian is only dimly aware of this paradox in the first half of the book, but his resentment and anger gradually build with his and the reader's increased awareness. For me, he came more alive toward the end.

The book has a very interesting premise and is an excellent commentary on some of the harsh truths of the American revolutionaries we so typically glorify. Nonetheless, I sometimes found the beginning difficult to get through and found myself aggravated by the roundabout speech and wording. I was much more drawn in by the end of the novel, and because of that, I will likely pick up the sequel.

- See my review of Octavian Nothing: Volume II.

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