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 first volume of M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. This 2006 novel was a National Book Award winner and a New York Times Bestseller. However, the literary-industrial complex hasn’t given Anderson the attention accorded to similarly ambitious writers – perhaps because his putative audience consists of “young adults.” With Volume II (The Kingdom of the Waves) now out in hardcover, we decided to give Volume I (The Pox Party) the adult consideration we both thought it deserved. Via email, we conducted a bicoastal conversation about Octavian Nothing, which we’ll share with you this week in three installments: Form and Style; Historical and Geographical Setting; and Audience, Character, and Conclusion. In the event that it engages you as it did us, perhaps we’ll follow up with conversations about Volume II, and about other titles. As always, we invite you to join the conversation via the Comments box.Part 1: Form and StyleEmily: I was worshipfully impressed with this book. The most striking aspect of M.T. Anderson’s novel, to me, was its formal evocation of the eighteenth century, the period in which it is set and is supposed to have been written. Octavian evokes for me the feeling of being in the archives – reading eighteenth-century English and early American newspapers and magazines, private journals, reports from the first generation of scientific societies like London’s Royal Society that rose and flourished throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th Centuries. The form that dominates is the diary or journal. It is propelled mainly by Octavian’s diary-like first-person recollections of his life in the fictional Boston scientific society, The Novanglian College of Lucidity.Garth: I’m going to jump in at this point like Smokey Robinson and second your emotion, Emily. Octavian Nothing is one of the best-written – and most challenging – young adult books I’ve ever read. The pastiche of 18th-Century style reminds me more of The Sot-Weed Factor and Mason & Dixon than of, say, J.K. Rowling (Anderson’s direct competitor). I’m tempted to say that it goes beyond pastiche: that it becomes beautiful in its own right. Look at the opening sentences, for example:I was raised in a gaunt house, with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees. I recall, in the orchard behind the house, orbs of flames rising through the black boughs and branches; they climbed, spiritous, and flickered-out; my mother squeezed my hand with delight.There are a number of things going on here: lyricism, archaism, and a sophisticated “defamiliarization”; after all, what are these “orbs?”Emily: Anderson is also extremely adept at manipulating shades of tone. He manages again and again to reproduce the cadences of period writing, but he does not (as one easily might) get bogged down in the (sometimes) tortuous syntax of the age. Look at this, for example:The two of them dancing could not have presented a more charming scene, turning as they did upon the greensward, with the blue gloaming seeping through the pines behind them and the empty sky above, lit by the frisking fireflies against the black trunks; they could not have performed their steps more elegantly, or spun more sweetly, even when the music sped off to a furious pace, skittering wildly, so that it could not have offered a reasonable beat to any but a raging Corybante dancing horde, drugged and frenzied before rending the flesh of fleeing men.Here Anderson mimics the complicated grammatical structures so common in the prose of the day, but it is also, as the first sentence was, beautiful. And I admire this not just for its linguistic athleticism and acrobatic capabilities, but because such sentences evoke the style and syntax of Latin and so give a sense of Octavian’s immersion in that lost world, as his own world is lost to us.Garth: It’s a lost world in which the study of Latin rhetoric, with its ritualized devices (in this case, hyperbole) would have been second nature. Especially to Octavian, who, in the conceit of the book, is the beneficiary of the world’s finest education. Perhaps I should also insert, by way of summary, that when the book opens, young Octavian and his mother are resident in the College. The early going is devoted to Octavian’s intuition that there’s some mysterious difference between himself and the College’s other residents. His gradual discovery of the nature of that difference, and of how he came to be where he is, will precipitate his further adventures. Much of this is done in a first-person voice, which is why the defamiliarization I mentioned earlier is so effective: we see as Octavian sees, and discover as he discovers.Emily: But the form of the book soon grows more complex.Garth: Spoiler alert?Emily: Spoiler alert. Into his diaristic narrative, Anderson begins to patch-work clippings from newspapers (adverts for slave sales and reward notices for run-away slaves) and letters from a variety of characters. While Octavian is called a novel, it is in the strictest sense of the word, a miscellany, one of the defining literary forms of the age in which it is set. Miscellany is the Renaissance and Eighteenth-Century’s period-specific version of pastiche.Garth: Like that book Schott’s Miscellany from a few years back?Emily: Right. A miscellany is a collection of literary productions of various kinds (poems, letters, essays, illustrations) gathered in a single volume, often united thematically rather than formally. Octavian’s mentor in this first volume, Bono, keeps a miscellany filled with newspaper pictures of shackles, razor collars, and iron masks used to silence and punish slaves. And Anderson is making his own sort of miscellany. The different voices and perspectives on Octavian give a richer sense of his character and demeanor, and the many shades of public opinion about slave-holding that jostled against each other in revolutionary America. There are also psalms, maps, diagrams and scientific reports written about Octavian and his mother by members of the Novanglian Society.Garth: Here again, Anderson is so committed to his invention – so immersed in it – that it seems to move beyond pastiche. When I got to the psalm (a beautiful lament that I didn’t remember from church), I actually had to look it up to make sure it wasn’t fabricated. In general, Octavian is so well-researched that its factual trappings often fade into the background. Throughout the book, in the diaristic sections and the scientific reports and so on, Anderson inhabits the multifarious 18th Century mind: positivist yet deistically religious; egalitarian yet slave-owning. The contradictions in the language become the animating tensions of the book.Emily: The scientific reports are particularly chilling and – though I did find myself wondering how many of the readers of Octavian are really young adults – serve as a sort of Dialectic of Enlightenment for those not quite ready for Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the Enlightenment deification of rationality and empiricism. Though, is anyone, ever?Garth: I was, once upon a time. Like you, I thought of The Dialectic of Enlightenment while reading Octavian – surely a first for a young adult book. Though I should throw in here that a similar philosophical bent and ventriloquistic brilliance animates Anderson’s earlier book, the science fiction novel Feed. (Opening line from the young narrator: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”) Part of what’s amazing about Octavian is that the Adorno/Horkheimer argument, this gnarly Germanic thing that practically makes people bleed from the ears in graduate school, becomes pellucidly clear when dramatized like this. This is not to say that Anderson’s consciously rewriting Adorno. Perhaps the idea that the Enlightenment pushed rationality to the point of irrationality is inherent in the material?Emily: I think so. “The Advancement of Learning” that began in the seventeenth century in Europe had many victims. I have read horrific Royal Society proceedings that recount “experiments” such as pouring corrosive acids on dogs and lambs to see what happens. They are more horrific for their dryly objective prose. Octavian, more horrifically still, brings this dark side of the Age of Reason to life. If you’ll allow me a final note on Anderson’s interesting and evocative approach to literary form – Garth: – And I will – Emily: – I wanted to point out that Anderson’s approach is powerful even if you are not familiar with the forms and foibles of 18th-Century literature – if you’re more familiar with the fractured forms of high Modernism, like Eliot’s The Waste Land, or miscellany’s post-modern cousin (to repeat the term you’ve been using, Garth), pastiche. In the novel’s most jarring formal sequence, Octavian’s first-person voice disappears and is replaced by a succession of letters from a variety of individuals, some barely literate, some fluent in the formal niceties and flattering flourishes of the age. All of a sudden our vision of Octavian is fractured – we’re seeing him and his plight as a runaway slave from myriad, radically different perspectives at once. I was reminded of As I Lay Dying – of a cognitive dissonance, a deliberately broken, heteroglossic approach to narrative that is much more often associated with modern authors like Joyce and Dos Passos but works remarkably well here. I was also reminded of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), another work of historical fiction that uses the fractured effect of miscellany to give a more expansive account of a moment of upheaval. It’s as if some traumas are so profoundly collective that they require a narrator, or a form, that can get beyond the limited view of the first person singular.Garth: “Heteroglossic.” I am definitely stealing that for future use. And if I can add my own summary note on the form and style of Octavian Nothing: I was basically really taken with – and jealous of – Anderson’s writing. I think he might be some kind of genius. In our next installment, maybe we can talk a bit more about that trauma – about the novel’s historical and geographical setting.