Octavian Nothing


M. T. Anderson




Date Reviewed:

October 3, 2009

hen I browse the bookshelves at the library, if a book catches my eye, I usually read the front and back cover before deciding if I want to check it out. But this book seemed so intriguing just from the title alone that I took it home and started it without reading the front or the back book flap. I didn't even notice the National Book Award Winner symbol on the front cover! The full title of this novel is The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation - Volume I: The Pox Party. It is a great title, I anticipated that it would be a great read.

I enjoyed the first half of the book. It starts off rather mysteriously, the young boy Octavian is treated as a prince, and his mother a queen, in a household which we gradually learn is located in colonial-era Boston. Unfortunately, the fact that his mother is a queen results in an emotional distancing between her and Octavian - she seems more concerned with proper airs and appearances rather than showing her true feelings for her son. I think this story would have been a lot more powerful if Octavian and his mother had shown how much they (presumably) loved each other.

A Pox Party is an interesting historical event that I had not heard of before. A group of people would gather a large supply of food and water and exile themselves to a house where they would then deliberately infect themselves with bits of skin rubbed from the sores of people who had suffered from small pox - this is a primitive attempt at vaccination, the people in the house placed themselves in quarantine, and hoped that by facing the dreaded disease on their own terms that they would then be immune to future plagues. Unfortunately, they did not know back then how to weaken the smallpox bacteria before infecting themselves, so many of the people contracted full blown smallpox. Octavian and his mother are in a household of people who host a Pox Party. This part of the novel is interesting and informative.

The last third of the book was a major disappointment to me. Up to that point, the entire novel had been in told in the form of a first person account written by Octavian. But after some major personal losses in Octavian's life, the text in the book is suddenly covered with black scribbles and blotches, there are no words (how does the audio version of this book handle these pages?) The blacked out words are apparently meant to signify that Octavian finds the events too painful to write about, but since the novel makes no attempt to look like a handwritten journal, this sudden intrusion of black smears (over computer-generated type!) doesn't convey a sense of overwhelming emotional loss, instead, it seemed to me that M.T. Anderson couldn't find the right words to tell Octavian's story, so he just punted. I remember reading a quote from Mike Mignola, a famous comic book artist. Mignola joked that he developed his style of using heavy shadows and silhouettes because he wasn't a good enough artist to draw those details. The black smears in this story seemed like the equivalent of those Mignola shadows; Anderson isn't a good enough to write those important scenes, so he is smearing black over everything and hoping to get away with it.

After the blotched text, the narrative suddenly switches from Octavian's first person account to a series of letters from various individuals in the Boston area. This narrative trick completely kills the momentum of the tale. It is tedious to read letters from people we don't know to other people we don't know. In order to seem "authentic", the letters contain lots of gratuitous "Give my love to Ma and tell Mary Ann I'll be home soon" paragraphs that do nothing to advance Octavian's story. Also to lend "authenticity", the letters are full of the colloquialisms and spellings of colonial times, this makes them difficult to parse. Somewhere in each letter is a brief paragraph, or perhaps just a couple of sentences, that mention Octavian. In this crippled manner, his story crawls forward. Again, it seemed like M.T. Anderson was struggling to tell this part of Octavian's tale.

Although Octavian returned to his role as narrator at the end of the book, the pace of the story had been sorely weakened, and the tale ends not long afterwards. I am not sure I care enough about Octavian to seek out the second volume of this series. I am surprised that a book this weak would win a National Book Award, I thought it was an average book at best, despite the promising beginning.