Anderson, M.T. 2006. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Volume 1: The Pox Party.
Unless the 'astonishing' quality of this book is how boring it is, Octavian Nothing is anything but astonishing. That doesn't mean that critics aren't praising Octavian, they are if the National Book Award is any indication. It won in the category of 'Young People's Literature.' Here is how they described this book: "Set against the disquiet of Revolutionary Boston, this novel, the first of two parts, re-imagines the past as an eerie place that has startling resonance for readers today." I have two comments. First, The National Book Award has in my opinion always been slightly out of touch with reality. When a book wins an award decided by adults it doesn't reflect or have any connection with how that book will appeal to its targeted age group. Sometimes a book wins that does. Sometimes the book is a dud. Second, I would like a full ten-page explanation as to how the book could possibly have any startling resonance for readers today. Seriously. The book is boring, boring, boring. Then dull. Then back to boring. The only thing that resonates in this reader's mind is: how could a book EVER be so boring and unappealing? In case you're thinking that I am put off because it's historical fiction, know that historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. I am also not put off by the novel's length, theoretically speaking. Its 351 pages is only tedious because of the book's content and drudgery style.
Octavian Nothing is set in Boston in the early years of the Revolutionary War. It is his 'memoir' of his unusual life beginning with his earliest recollections and continuing at least through his fifteenth or sixteenth year. He is a slave, though for the first eight to ten years he is unaware of this fact.
Right thinking is ever a battle, and often I cast my mind back to these early lessons and pursue these early ideals, though now the ghastly purpose of that dim college has been made clear to me; and he who ran it appears to me not like a man but some monster who instructed me, some beast endued with the speech of man, as the centaur Chiron wrote out lessons for young Achilles with his human hands, and spake his lectures with his human mouth, while his glossy hindquarters dropped faeces upon the Senate lawn. (12)
A man in a topiary maze cannot judge of the twistings and turnings, and which avenue might lead him to the heart; while one who stands above, on some pleasant prospect, looking down upon the labyrinth, is reduced to watching the bewildered circumnavigations of the tiny victim through obvious coils--as the gods, perhaps, looked down on beseiged and blood-sprayed Troy from the safety of their couches, and thought mortals weak and foolish while they themselves reclined in comfort, and had only to snap to call Ganymede to their side with nectar decanted.(37)
And so the answer to my perplexities, which must appear in all its clarity to those who look from above, was finally clear to me: that I too was the subject of a zoological experiment (51).
And in case you hadn't picked up on it, the language, sentence structure, and style of Octavian Nothing is grandiose, archaic, and rarely if ever 'resonate.'
Here is how Octavian describes his tutor:
His knowledge was prodigious; his mastery of philosophic depths was total, though his notions were somewhat eccentric. He worked with me word by word, leaning over my shoulder as I parsed my way through Tacitus and Homer; which instruction much have seemed to him not unlike the sea-captain, who having braved the catastrophic blasts and giddy precipices of the maelstrom, and but skated to their side; having passed with expert haste through the clashing Simplegades; having sat in the sick green eye of the hurricane, surrounded by the hulking wrecks of other, less fortunate, fleets; now wades with a little nephew in the warm shallows, collecting trash and pretty bits of shell. He must have looked out to sea with his glass sometimes, and wished for the spray, and men with whom he could truly speak of the rigors of navigation. (58-59)
Perhaps the only resonate line in the book I discovered was: Shed no tear for me; for I shed none for myself(67).
Add to the confusing language and style of the text the fact that only three or four people are given names and the rest are referred to by numbers. It is hard as a reader to care about these characters and what happens to them. How can you get emotionally involved with someone named 03-01 or 09-01, etc.
What I will grant is this, after about 130 or 150 pages into the novel, the reader is finally able to get adjusted to the style and begins to warm up slightly to these characters. But before that each page is dull drudgery. And I ask you this...what reader...what young reader...would ever be patient enough to sit down with a book that is so boring and dull and pointless for over a hundred pages? It is only towards the end of the novel when Octavian is beginning to contemplate escaping from his masters, once he becomes more like the 'average' slave--forced into work, receiving beatings and punishments--that the book becomes slightly worth all the effort the reader had put into it up until that point.
This is hardly best-book-of-the-year material, but I'm sure other best-lists will follow suit and pay homage to this National Book Award winner. My opinion, this is a year where the winner is a fine example of the Emperor's New Clothes. Lots of praise, lots of acclaim and prestige, but the average, honest reader (with a head of common sense) will find a whole lot of nothing.