In 2011 a new baby and a new home led to a summer-long reading drought. For the last five years I’ve kept a log of all the books I’ve read. From May (The White Tiger) to October (1Q84) the log was empty — the longest such stretch in memory. But if this wasn’t a year of quantity it was one of quality.
Not at first, though. My year in reading began with David Brooks’ The Social Animal, which I reviewed for The Christian Science Monitor and, though I didn’t say it there in quite these terms, was, I thought, a nice demonstration of what happens when a writer becomes too in love with his own perceptive powers.
Things got better from there, however, when I read W. Stanley Moss’ Ill Met by Moonlight, which had just been reissued by the Philadelphia publisher Paul Dry Books. It’s a first-person journal account of a daring World War II mission to kidnap the commanding general of Nazi forces on Crete. Moss and his British Special Ops colleague Patty Leigh Fermor pulled it off without so much as a blip in their pulse rates, all the while getting hammered nightly on local wine and consorting with all manner of Cretan misfits. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
My first fiction of the year came on a friend’s recommendation: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. Like me, my friend likes good young adult fiction and Octavian Nothing was one of the most unsettling stories about slavery in America I’ve ever read. If I’d picked it up when I was 10, I wouldn’t have slept for weeks afterward and to this day might still be calling it the best book I’ve ever read.
After Octavian I turned to another gut-wrenching political novel: Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, about caste inequality in modern India. In the mid-2000s I spent a year in India and left taken by the country’s kaleidoscopic culture and effusive spirituality. I knew, even then, that those views were caricature, and that they ignored or rationalized the pervasive human suffering I’d seen while traveling. But it wasn’t until reading Adiga’s novel that I gave up that rosy view altogether. After finishing the book I passed it to my wife, making The White Tiger the first book we’d read more or less together since Pride and Prejudice back at the end of George W. Bush’s first term.
White Tiger was not the most widely shared book in my family this year, though. That honor goes to Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run. My neighbor gave it to me, I passed it to my brother, who passed it to my sister-in-law who passed it our brother-in-law who, as far as I know, still has it. For months we debated the merits of bare-foot running and the perniciousness of the modern sneaker industry. When we all ran a 10K in Maine over the Fourth of July, my sister-in-law brought chia seeds, mail-ordered special from the Internet.
In the end, though, 2011 was the Year of Murakami. For three breathless weeks in October I read 1Q84. Following on months of transition and many sleepless newborn nights, Murakami’s rare, strange story gave me back my human shape.
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This winter, Millions contributors Emily Colette Wilkinson and Garth Risk Hallberg both happened to pick up the M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Via email, we conducted a bicoastal conversation about Octavian Nothing, Volume I: The Pox Party, which we’re sharing with you this week in three installments. Part 1 focused on Form and Style. Part 2 focused on Historical and Geographic Setting. N.B.: Today’s installment contains plot spoilers.Part 3: Audience, Character, and ConclusionGarth: What makes a kids’ book a kids’ book, in the popular sense of the phrase? After having thought about this a lot, the answer I’ve come up with is: kids’ books often have a kind of “educational” component adult novels can get away with bypassing. This is a way of broaching the topic of audience. You mentioned earlier, Emily, that you wondered about the audience of this book, and I wanted to suggest that the question of audience may persist even if you ignore, for example, Anderson’s debt to Adorno (as one can easily do.)Emily: Yes, I think I agree with your idea that didacticism is what makes this YA, but I still find myself wondering what I would have made of this book in my early teens – I wonder if I would have liked it, or even understood it. In my own teaching at the university level, I have seen students struggle with 18th-Century literature. Of course, there are a lot of children’s books that abstract their plots and characters from philosophy and history that is more adult (Narnia’s Christianity, Jane Langton’s use of American transcendentalism in The Hall Family Chronicles, Jenny Davidson’s use of an alternative history of Europe (if Napoleon had won at Waterloo) in The Explosionist, Matthew Skelton’s use of Faust legends and the history of Gutenberg and his press in Endymion Spring). But I feel like Octavian is harder – the style is harder, the form is harder – even if the history itself will probably be more familiar. I like the idea of younger readers liking this book, but I am, nonetheless, a little surprised by it.Garth: This may be one of those things you’re not supposed to ask for from books about American slavery, Sept. 11, Naziism, and so forth, but I thought that the subtlety of Anderson’s moral sense lagged at times behind his technical gifts. Octavian offers an essentially monochromatic vision of the institution of slavery. He does a great job revealing the way it was bound up in the culture, extending the responsibility to most participants of that culture, but he leaves little room for gradations of evil. The ironies are often negations, rather than complications or paradoxes. Juxtaposed with his extraordinary formal achievements, this made me wonder, for whom was this book was written? Younger readers may find fusillades of prose flying by over their heads, while older readers may be disappointed by the lack of moral complexity. It may be argued that melodrama is one of the archaic conventions Anderson is playing with here, but Harriet Beecher Stowe got there in the 19th Century, and did it more convincingly. I should issue another spoiler alert here, by the way. I think we might have to give away some of the book’s secrets to discuss our criticisms.Emily: I wouldn’t say I have criticisms of Octavian as much as I have questions because it is a difficult book.Garth: Maybe this is a way of exposing myself as overly hungry for irony in the novels I read. But for me, the problem of moral certainty (and its potential solutions in Volume II of Octavian Nothing) is grounded in the characters themselves. After watching Anderson painstakingly reconstruct the cultural environment within which anyone found slavery sane, I was disappointed to see Mr. Gitney, the head of the Novanglian College of Lucidity collapse into simple villainy. I was more interested in him when he seemed merely compromised and self-deluding. Similarly, the virtuous Private Evidence Goring, who befriends Octavian, was a little too virtuous for me. He had this kind of Rousseauvian innocence – he seems genuinely colorblind, and naturally assumes his friend Octavian’s equality. He’s like a son of the soil. Could he really be uncontaminated by the pervasive ideology of slave-owning? I wanted at least to see him be really dismissive of a woman, or something. I guess I wanted him to be capable of change.Emily: I share your disappointment in Mr. Gitney. The one aspect of this book that I found kind of clunky was the way Gitney pursued his experiment on Octavian. He aims to discover if Africans have the same intellectual and moral capacities as Europeans, but that would necessitate having a European subject raised alongside Octavian in the exact same conditions. The betrayal of the rationalist empiricism that Gitney claims to defend is glaringly obvious – but not to him. Maybe a way around our dissatisfaction is to think of Gitney and Goring as allegorical figures? Goring as the bright, naive, fresh-faced idealism of a soon-to-be nation; Gitney as… well, maybe the inhumanity of which science and commerce are capable? Something like that? And Octavian – who I think will develop into a flesh and blood, three-dimensional character in future volumes – is trying to orient himself in the midst of all of these?Garth: Ah. This might explain my lack of feeling for Gitney and Goring. I don’t have much of a taste for allegory.Emily: Though, in truth, I was not so bothered by Goring as a character, allegory aside. Perhaps because I am more at home with the idioms of the eighteenth century, his character did not seem false to me – kind of Tom Jones-y, though a bit more religious. I found his naive idealism appealing and believable. A matter of taste, I think. I can appreciate irony but do not require it in my reading. Indeed, I have been known – forgive me, Oscar Wilde – to cry uncontrollably when Dickens describes Tiny Tim’s empty stool and crutch leaning against the wall in A Christmas Carol. My occasional problems with sensibility aside, though, I think allegory might be the key here.Garth: Dr. Trefusius, Octavian’s tutor, was a much more interesting character to me, because his complicated relationship to “the peculiar institution” recalled the Jeffersonian one I sketched in Part 2 of our conversation. Trefusius is hopelessly compromised and complicit, but is not beyond redemption. Indeed, his is the kind of character who necessitates redemption. Likewise Bono, the slave you mentioned earlier, who almost forms a dyad with Dr. Trefusius. His clear-sightedness comes at the cost of his optimism. I suppose I think this kind of muddled moral position has more to teach us, because it’s the one we’re more likely to find ourselves in – beneficiaries of institutions that would bother our consciences, if we allow ourselves to see them for what they are. But here I’m starting to sound like I’m asking for more didacticism. Perhaps didacticism in literature is a paradox. For the bald didactic “moral” can only teach us so much. It precipitates a gestalt shift; we can only learn it once. Whereas putatively amoral irony and ambiguity constitute an ongoing lesson in what life is like. This is what’s so remarkable about Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, by the way. It has volumes to teach us about how one human being can tolerate owning another. Speaking of character, what did you think of Octavian himself?Emily: Octavian is hard to grasp, elusive, there is a lack of emotion about him, a lack of self-knowledge that makes him seem something like autistic at times (added to his encyclopedic knowledge of natural and classical history, there’s a bit of a Rain Man effect). This might have bothered me more if it didn’t remind me of some of Defoe’s best heroes and heroines, particularly Robinson Crusoe, and also Coetzee’s equally emotionally opaque Foe. With the exceptions of Evidence Goring and Dr. Trefusis, all of the characters in Volume I strike me as emotionally broken and joyless, either by slavery or by a deformed and deforming commitment to a perverse version of rationalism.Garth: With Octavian, Anderson clearly wants to do something with the idea of scientific observation (in which his protagonist is trained) versus engagement, but Octavian’s tendency to become a transparent eyeball at key dramatic moments made it increasingly difficult for me to get a read on his character. I longed for a dawning complexity befitting the maturity of the language, but Octavian became less plausible to me the older he got. That is, I think I saw what Anderson was up to, but had some trouble suspending disbelief. I would have liked to have seen more of a moral duality in Octavian himself: struggling with his own urge to dominate others, to lash out in violence at weaker characters, to achieve Oedipal one-ness with his mother… you get the picture. Though perhaps the point is that observation versus engagement is itself a moral quandary. I wanted, finally, to see Octavian as a particular human personality, rather than as an Everyman shaped by forces beyond his control. I’m hoping this is what Part II is for…Emily: My question is whether Octavian can get beyond this broken, stunted, deadened quality in future volumes and if such an evolution can be convincing. Garth: So maybe this is a good point to leave off the discussion. This has been fun, Emily. Maybe we should do it again.Emily: Indeed!Bonus Link: A 2008 profile of M.T. Anderson from The Washington Post
This winter, Millions contributors Emily Colette Wilkinson and Garth Risk Hallberg both happened to pick up the M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Via email, we conducted a bicoastal conversation about Octavian Nothing, Volume I: The Pox Party, which we’re sharing with you this week in three installments. Part 1 focused on Form and Style. Part 3 will focus on Audience, Character, and Conclusion. Please note that today’s installment contains plot spoilers.Part 2: Geographic and Historical SettingGarth: The setting of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation reminds me of one of George Saunders’ theme parks, CivilWarLand or Pastoralia. It could be real, but everything is slightly exaggerated or off in the way of good science-fiction. The rational philosophers of the College of Lucidity refer to themselves by number rather than name, for example, which works both as a cool detail and as a commentary on the humanistic blind-spots of the Enlightenment, which we discussed earlier. M.T. Anderson does the set piece very well, and in his capable hands, historical footnotes like the titular “pox party” become hallucinatory visions that work perfectly to dramatize the book’s central concerns.Emily: And one historical footnote in particular gets a lot of attention. Although the removal of Thomas Jefferson’s anti-slavery clause from the list of grievances against King George in the Declaration of Independence is hardly a historical revelation at this late date, I couldn’t help thinking that it is a crucial hovering presence in Anderson’s miscellany. Here’s the clause:He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of INFIDEL powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the LIBERTIES of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the LIVES of an other.In the end, it was cut because the Southern states wouldn’t sign a Declaration with a condemnation of slavery (thereby laying the groundwork for the Civil War).Garth: This is totally fascinating, Emily. And it is a revelation, to me at least: I had no idea this was ever in the Declaration of Independence. I can see quite clearly now that much of the plot of the second half of Octavian, which is driven by a rumored alliance between American slaves and the English crown, is drawn not from the airy realms of authorial fancy, but, like so many other of Octavian’s seemingly absurd details, from Anderson’s research. Octavian would have been familiar with Horace’s poetics, wherein dramas were supposed to “instruct and entertain.” I think Anderson’s most effective instructional tool is letting us discover that the story’s seemingly science-fictiony details, which “shock the conscience,” are quite real. I want to flag, too, for future discussion, the sensibility Jefferson reveals in that deleted clause. Is he a rank hypocrite? Or is he – rather more appallingly – quite like us (although a much better writer, unless “us” includes M.T. Anderson)? Jefferson’s commitment to the sanctity of “life and liberty” strikes me as deeply felt, the contempt for “this execrable commerce” not merely rhetorical. And yet the force of Jefferson’s sentences is: Get off our back, George, and stop meddling with our slaves.Emily: Yes – the idea of “profit and delight” (to use an 18th-Century phrase often invoked with specific reference to miscellanies) is, I think, at the core of Anderson’s poetics. Octavian’s life as Anderson tells it is absolutely engrossing – entertaining – and it gives appalling force to the profound contradiction inherent in the American Revolution and the founding of the American Republic: A nation that upheld itself as particularly invested in personal freedom and liberty was also a nation of slave-holders. Octavian is less “Traitor to the Nation” than betrayed by it. In one of the most intellectually frightening scenes of the book, Octavian’s captors – rationalists to the end, even as they are hypocrites – explain to him that there is no contradiction between their commitments to “the cause of Liberty” and to keeping slaves. They explain that the freedom the revolution seeks to ensure is the freedom of exchange (capitalism), rather than some more abstract, philosophical freedom that would require the freeing of slaves. The scene is on par with Orwell or Kafka – the rational irrationality, the rational cruelty, the commitment to cold, abstract principals when the hideous inhumanity those principals inflict screams out for recognition.Garth: As a scholar of the 18th Century, you know a lot more about this than I do. Do you think this explicit argument about “freedom of exchange” is as historically accurate as the other elements of the book? Of course it’s implicit in “no taxation without representation,” but were pluralities of revolutionaries making it the fundament of their concept of natural rights? (If so, I shudder to think what the “strict constructionists” on the Supreme Court would do with this.) Because it really does seem like Jefferson’s “liberty,” enshrined in the Declaration and even the deleted clause above, is much more expansive than that. My bleeding-heart sense of the thing is that Jeffersonian “liberty” is like Hegel’s “spirit” or like divine love in The Bible – a universal principle that, as history progresses, comes closer and closer to being realized in the world. Until heaven is at hand, we struggle and contradict ourselves and do our best to explain away our blind spots. This is going to tie in to some things I want to say about character in the third part of our discussion, but I wanted to give you a chance to jump in and comment here.Emily: Freedom of exchange was definitely a part of the impetus for the revolution. As with so many other revolutions of this age (the English Civil War, the French Revolution) and others after it, the American Revolution began in practical, material grievances – issues like the stamp tax and England’s refusal to allow colonists to appoint their own governors. But this is not to deny a genuine intellectual and emotional commitment to the abstract ideal of freedom among the revolutionaries, or the reality that some believed the revolution would bring an end to slavery, and that there was a Christian imperative to end slavery. We see this view represented in Anderson’s book by Evidence Goring, a young American soldier who befriends Octavian. Goring believes that “slavery and subjugation shall soon fall away” and offers a gruesome vision of the fate that awaits slaveholders:And God shall curse those who hold their fellow Men as Slaves; and in the Last Day, they shall know Weeping, when Christ comes striding from the Skies, Hands drizzling His Blood, Eyes filled with a Sorrow at what He must do: For then they shall remain enchained to this Flesh, hobbled with Bone, when the Rest are released from their Gross Bodies into the hallowed Air.In this vision of Goring’s, which borrows the language and tone of Revelations, there are, perhaps, intimations of your ideas about Hegel? This vision also censures the kind of materialism that Octavian’s owners defend, the kind of materialism that puts property, particularly human property over liberty in the famous Revolutionary slogan “liberty and property.” Those who value material property, human property, bodies, above liberty, will never achieve transcendence.