Monday, January 29, 2007

Liberty and Science

On Sunday afternoon I finished The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. I: The Pox Party, by M.T. Anderson. It is beautiful and agonizing. I recommend it to everyone. The story is told primarily from the perspective of a young African-American boy who grows up with his mother in a house of scientists in pre-Revolutionary Boston. They’re in a bizarre position: they are treated almost as family members (even as royalty) and Octavian is given an exceptional classical education. He doesn’t even realize he and his mother are slaves until he is older. Their situation changes (for the worse) as the American Revolution begins.

To say more would revel too much, and I want you readers to have the untarnished benefit of plot turns and surprises. In fact, don’t read any of the reviews or summaries on Amazon’s page because most of them contain spoilers. You may also note on Amazon’s page that the book is marketed to young adult readers, which confounds me; it’s a book for adults or for adolescents with the capacity to appreciate books for adults.

Anderson does an excellent job of recreating the language and culture of Revolutionary New England. At a critical point in the book, the story changes narrators completely. Large and seemingly critical portions of Octavian’s “diary” are scratched through with ink splotches all over the page—enough to drive a reader mad with suspense, and suddenly we are reading letters from strangers. It’s a jarring but effective narrative shift. Octavian’s erudite prose is lovely, whereas other characters’ narrative contributions are by contrast idiotically bigoted, kindly but naive, and pitilessly clinical.

There are so many levels to Anderson’s characters and the ethics of each situation: from scientific experimentation to friendship to slavery to America’s founding war. Everything in the book is complex and thought provoking, but the story is so engrossing you have little time to stop and ponder these things before you plunge expectantly into the next chapter.

The book ends with a cliffhanger, so Ickie and I are eagerly awaiting the sequel.


Ickenham said...

I'll just go ahead and affirm what Watoosa has said. It's one of the best books I've read in a while. One of the things that make it especially interesting is that the protagonist has received the best possible classical education, and that allows Anderson to portray, through Octavian's narrration, the slave's experience of that peculiar institution with eloquence and wit. It's Octavian himself talking to us--not a narrator talking for him--but his voice is unhindered by the enforced deference and ignorance that would ordinarily stifle the communication from an American slave. I haven't read much Frederick Douglas, but I think the effect is the same. Douglas' eloquence forces you to respect him, and does not allow you to slip into a patronizing pity for "helpless" slaves.

Watoosa said...

Nice point. I was just thinking about Frederick Douglass the other day as well.