I’ve just finished reading M.T. Anderson’s novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party, and I’m about as overwhelmed by the task of actually writing about the book as you may be by reading through the Fourteen Words (And One Number) of the title. A book that’s so complex and meandering in its philosophical explorations and stylistic techniques resists simple summary. It feels almost like a betrayal to that complexity to write this sentence: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party is about a boy raised by a group of philosophers in pre-Revolutionary Boston; it is only after he’s been dressed in the finest clothes, given the most rigorous classical education, and exposed every fine art that Octavian discovers he’s a slave at the heart of an experiment to prove his own inferiority.
I spent much of the first part of this novel reveling in Anderson’s exquisite craftsmanship. It may take some time to adjust to the winding passages of Octavian’s narration, but it’s prose that dazzles. For example, here’s Octavian’s description of the organization that raises him:
They called themselves the Novanglian College of Lucidity, and devoted themselves to divining the secrets of the universe, so praising the Creator, who had with infinite art manufactured such a dazzling apparatus; and each investigation into the incubation of tern-eggs or the mystery of sediment was but an ear pressed to the mechanism, the better to hear the click of gears, the swiveling of stars on cog and ambulating cam. (8)
A reader may—perhaps even gladly—get lost in this whirlwind of words, but Anderson knows that Octavian would tell his story no other way. That is, at least, until Octavian refuses to tell it at all, until he takes away the one thing he has the power to take away: his voice.
When I lost Octavian’s voice in the second section of the book, I bore the loss only because I believed that he would return. This section slowed down, but it also gave me a gift: a series of letters capturing the initial battle of the Revolutionary War from the point-of-view of one of the soldiers, a soldier whose voice makes the war real from the ground level in a way no history book might. It may be fiction, but it’s based in fact, and it feels more true than any textbook paragraph.
I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but I was particularly entranced with a philosophical exchange that happens near the end of the novel, an exchange that demonstrates how even the most evil practices and policies may be defended under the guise of philosophy. Anderson lays this bare when one character argues against the idea that “Kindness is common sense.” The character states, “Kindness without profit is like a teapot hovering over a table, held by nothing” (338). The exchange really made me think about how even the most evil of policies—in this case slavery—have been defended by men who were considered logical and reasonable. It serves as a reminder—a timely one, perhaps always timely: logic and reason can be employed (perhaps faultily) towards an end that is neither good nor right.
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party amazes and challenges and confounds. It is not a book that rips the reader right through on waves of adventure and suspense, but it is a book that rewards with much to think about long after the covers have been closed.
[Anderson, M.T. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I, The Pox Party. Somerville: Candlewick, 2006.]