Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party

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

The Plot: I don't want to give too much away; but then again, considering this won the National Book Award and got a ton of publicity, chances are you know all the major plot points. But here's my go at it: Octavian is raised in an odd house where only he and his mother, a princess in exile, have names. He is educated and dressed in silks; but something odd is going on and he's not sure what it is. There is a forbidden room, and once Octavian enters and learns of his true place in the world, he can never return to innocence.

The Good: I will try to minimize the spoilers below, but if you dislike any type of spoilers, stop reading.

This book is long; and it's an odd start. I began with absolutely no spoilers, and for a while thought I was reading Gothic fantasy; after a few chapters I realized it was historical fiction set during the Revolutionary War, and that it was realistic fiction. Why fantasy? The fact that Octavian and his mother are royalty in exile; that there is a bit of the fantastic to their lush life; but that there is something horrible lurking in the corners.

The book reads as if it was written in the 18th century. This is both good and bad; the good is that it shows just how brilliant Anderson is, because he pulls it off flawlessly. The bad is that I don't particularly like the style of books written during that time period. But that's a personal preference; it's a reason I wouldn't say this is my favorite book; but it's also the reason why it's one of the best books of the year.

The book begins, I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple trees. I think it was the "floating lights" that made me think fantasy; but already, you can see the masterful use of language. A gaunt house? Brilliant. And, as promised, the language is of the past, not the present: How doth all that seeks to rise burn itself to nothing? Like much of the language in this book, this sentence has multiple meanings. Octavian, it turns out, is a slave, subject to a lifelong experiment on just whether slaves can be educated. Will Octavian rise beyond this? Or will he burn out in the attempt?

More quotes: The natural depression of spirits produces in the breast of any human creature endowed with sympathy at the news of another slipping from daylight, from the realm of reason and the theatre of motion, back into the obdurate chaos of uncreated night, into which we all eventually shall rumble.

See? Anderson recreates the way of speaking, of writing, of communicating. For some of us, including me, that does create a bit of a barrier. Or, rather, a challenge; but at the same time, it puts the reader more fully in the world of the past. Don't let the language stop you; because this is what historical fiction should be; Octavian and the other characters are at all times creatures of the time and place in which they live, rather than modern people with modern sensibilities who happen to wear funny clothes.

Anderson also captures what it means to not know a historic outcome; here, it is an unknowing look at the origins of the Revolutionary War. Why are people fighting? Who will win? Who will lose? Who is right? Who is wrong? Anderson doesn't answer these questions; rather, he asks the questions that would have been asked by the people living during this time.

I've read some criticisms of Octavian's character development; apparently, this work was meant to be one book but was divided into two. As such, I think we have to hold off on making any determinations about Octavian. Much happens to him; including the revelation that he is a slave; the horrific torture he is subject to as a slave; and the death of his mother. The trauma of his mother's death is so great that Octavian's narrative becomes one of scratched out words, and others take over the tale.

Stylistically, I like the switch once Octavian is unable to speak of the horrors following the pox party; but I also found the letters written by a common soldier much easier to read (stylistically speaking.)

Question: Does anyone else think there is more to the story of Octavian's mother than has been told so far?

Links: The Book Standard interview; the Not Your Mother's Bookclub interview.

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