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Titles similar to The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation; v.1
M. T. Anderson’s books for young people reflect a remarkably broad mastery of genres, even as they defy neat classification. Any labeling requires lots of hyphens: space-travel satire (Feed, 2002), retro-comic fantasy-adventure (Whales on Stilts, 2005). This genre-labeling game seems particularly pointless with Anderson’s latest novel, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation (2006), an episodic, highly ambitious story, deeply rooted in eighteenth-century literary traditions, which examines, among many other things, pre-Revolutionary slavery in New England.
The plot focuses on Octavian, a young black boy who recounts his youth in a Boston household of scientists and philosophers (The Novanglian College of Lucidity). The Collegians believe so thoroughly in the Age of Reason’s principles that they address one another as numbers. Octavian soon learns that he and his mother are objects of one of the Collegians’ experiments to learn whether Africans are “a separate and distinct species.” Octavian receives an education “equal to any of the princes in Europe,” until financial strains shatter Octavian’s sheltered life of intellectual pursuits and the illusion that he is a free member of a utopian society. As political unrest in the colonies grows, Octavian experiences the increasing horrors of what it means to be a slave.
The story’s scope is immense, in both its technical challenges and underlying intellectual and moral questions--perhaps too immense to be contained in a traditional narrative (and, indeed, Anderson has already promised a second volume to continue the story). As in Meg Rosoff’s Printz Award Book How I Live Now (2004), in which a large black circle replaces text to represent the indescribable, Anderson’s novel substitutes visuals for words. Several pages show furious black quill-pen cross-hatchings, through which only a few words are visible, perhaps indicating that even with his scholarly vocabulary, Octavian can’t find words to describe the vast evil that he has witnessed. Likewise, Anderson employs multiple viewpoints and formats--letters, newspaper clippings, scientific papers--to pick up the story that Octavian is periodically unable to tell.
Once acclimated to the novel’s style, readers will marvel at Anderson’s ability to maintain this high-wire act of elegant, archaic language and shifting voices, and they will appreciate the satiric scenes that gleefully lampoon the Collegians’ more buffoonish experiments. Anderson’s impressive historical research fixes the imagined College firmly within the facts of our country’s own troubled history. The fluctuations between satire and somber realism, gothic fantasy and factual history will jar and disturb readers, creating a mood that echoes Octavian’s unsettled time as well as our own.
Anderson’s book is both chaotic and highly accomplished, and, like Aidan Chambers’ recent This Is All (2006), it demands rereading. Teens need not understand all the historical and literary allusions to connect with Octavian’s torment or to debate the novel’s questions, present in our country’s founding documents, which move into today’s urgent arguments about intellectual life; individual action; the influence of power and money, racism and privilege; and what patriotism, freedom, and citizenship mean.
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