Octavian Nothing: Yeah, it won the NBA, but what you really want to know is… what do Jules and Eisha think?

h1 December 26th, 2006 by eisha

We promised, and now we deliver: Jules and Eisha will now turn our powerful intellects and rapier wits to discussing the 2006 winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume One: The Pox Party, by M.T. Anderson.

Usually we’d begin with a summary of the plot for those who haven’t read it yet, then go on to discuss the merits and pitfalls of the work while trying to avoid spoilers. But I’m going to declare right now: if you haven’t read it, but think you will, you probably shouldn’t read this. I think the more you know about this book in advance, the more damage you do to your experience of reading it. I’ll just tell you this: if you’re the least bit curious or interested, READ IT. Whether you end up liking it or not, whether you agree that it works as young adult literature or not, this book is worth at least an attempt at reading it for yourself. Even if it doesn’t move you, it will definitely make you think.

Beware, intrepid reader. There be Spoilers beyond these waters. You have been warned.

eisha: So, in case you couldn’t tell, I like it. I found the concept fascinating, and I thought Anderson’s tendency towards adopting a highly-distinctive literary voice for each of his books was well-served here. I think the criticism that it’s not appealing for a lot of teens is valid – it takes a lot of patience and a pretty sophisticated vocabulary to get through, and the cover is deeply flawed – the depiction of Octavian in the mask is a good idea, but the illustration itself looks like it’s meant for a children’s book. Maybe an engraving that looked like one of the newspaper illustrations of the devices that Bono collected would have been better. But I’m no book designer, and I digress. I think for certain teens, and there may not be many of them, this story will be worth the “obstacles.” What do you think?

jules: Do I still have a powerful intellect if I was wondering while reading the novel — since there are characters named Bono and Prince — where the soundtrack is? Do I still have a rapier wit if my favorite kid joke is what kind of cheese isn’t yours? Nacho cheese. Okay, seriously. Seriously, I’m here, and I’m ready to talk about this novel, which I also really liked. And, yes, we must co-review it, since — as Bono tells Octavian at one point — “{m}iscreants got to hang together.”

Yes, I can see how for certain teens the book possesses some obstacles, as you put it. And then there’s “A Pox on Pox Party by Emily Bazelon in Slate (thanks to Fuse #8 for the link, and I’ve been bothered by Bazelon’s write-up ever since I finished the novel and wonder if some folks just enjoy being contrary for the sake of it), in which she writes:

The intricate and windy 18th-century prose should suffice to ensure that any 12- or 16-year-old who reads this book is a 12- or 16-year-old who really, really wanted to. The adult raves aside, I wonder how many of them there are. Pox Party bears all the worthy marks of a book that makes adults swoon and kids roll their eyes.

Okay, but — to be perfectly frank — this just gets on my nerves. Before I perhaps get labelled an out-of-touch snob, let me emphasize that I see what she means. I get that it’s not the Year’s Most Accessible Teen Title. But I also think that way more teens than we give credit to — as in, those who don’t even seek the book out (let’s say, for the sake of example, that it gets assigned to an English course) — will get past this, will really begin to love the book. Why? Because — unlike Ms. Bazelon seems to think (did she read the same book? I found several scenes so heartrending, the writing so original, the circumstances so effectively horrifying that I have trouble seeing how Octavian isn’t “vivid and real,” how he “remains disembodied”) — his character is so expertly drawn for us, so humanized on every level, that he becomes real, becomes pitiable, and we begin to care what will happen next. Not to mention a teen’s zippy quick, lightning-speed ability to spot and nail someone for hypocrisy, one of the book’s central themes, serves as another way to draw teen readers in.

This whole question about whether or not this should be categorized as YA and the what-really-is-“YA-Lit”-anyway question is a complex one, and we can direct readers here and here to think further on it. I will say that Octavian could be, without question, a successful cross-over title — that is, YA and adults. I hope the adult fiction world sees this book and won’t disdain it — as some adults, unfortunately, do — as a “teen title.”

Here are two questions for you, e: Did you find yourself sometimes so wow’ed by the writing (sorry to sound banal about it, but that’s my best verb here to describe how I felt) that you had to just pause and celebrate and ponder and marvel at M.T.’s mind? You know I did, ’cause I emailed you about it, all swoony and such over his writing. I mean, have you ever read anything like this? I, personally, think the National Book Award folks chose well (though, as I made clear, I also really loved Patricia McCormick’s Sold). And my second question (ignore the fact that there are two questions above) is: What did you think of the sudden shift in point-of-view (from Octavian to Private Goring)? I found it extremely effective. And let me say that when we suddenly see part of Octavian’s manuscript testimony crossed out in heavy ink right before we get to Goring (right around the death of Octavian’s mother) . . . well, remember that part in “The Sixth Sense” when that I-see-dead-people boy is talking to his mother in the kitchen, she turns around for what seems like a femtosecond, and then when she turns back, all the kitchen cabinet doors are open? I got shivers and goosebumps and gasped like that when I turned the page and saw those spooky deletions.


eisha: LOL – had not made the Prince & Bono connection. Your rapier is way sharper than mine. To answer your questions:

1. Yes, I was frequently blown away – Mr. Anderson can certainly turn a phrase, and it’s obvious there was a lot of meticulous research and craft at work here – the language is extraordinary. My one quibble with Anderson’s work in general is that sometimes the extreme verbal posturing creates a sort of coldness about his books, a distance between the reader and the narrator that occasionally makes it hard to connect emotionally with the story. I think I’m hearing that complaint from Bazelon in the Slate review you mentioned, when she says, “The voice of Octavian never broke free of its own metal casing. He remains disembodied—pitiable, no question, but too remote to actually pity.”

But I actually think the remoteness and lack of emotion in his own parts of the narrative works for Octavian, and makes perfect sense within the context. He was raised by philosophers, as an experiment. The only emotional bond he really formed was with his mother, and she was distant and remote herself. He was trying to be a neutral observer, as he described so memorably in that scene in the first chapter when he describes some of the “experiments” he witnessed: drowning dogs, throwing cats off scaffolds, and beating a mentally-impaired girl “to the point of gagging and swooning” for not being able to learn verb conjugations (THAT was a scene that gave me goosebumps)… Growing up under these conditions, and eventually learning that he was himself the subject of one of their experiments in some Revolutionary-era Tuskegee Study, and therefore just as expendable as one of the caged animals in the lab, the only way he could survive would be to succeed in the experiment, to prove himself intellectually capable of mastering their teachings, essentially becoming like them. So I thought the cold, scientific-observer tone of his accounts was an effective device, which leads me to…

2. Yes, the scribbled-out passages of his journals were also very effective – it was such a cool way to depict his struggle with his emotions, with his humanity. Very, very cool. I’ll bet anything Anderson actually wrote it all out for real, too, just to scribble it out… he seems like that kind of Mr. Meticulous-Detail Man.

Okay, my question for you: How much do you think the fact that this is a Caucasian man writing the story of an African American slave impacted the story? Is this a book about the Great White Guilt? Did it bother you at all? I think it bothered me a little – I mean, a good story is a good story, no matter who tells it, and I’m not saying a person from one race or culture doesn’t have the right to try to get inside the mind of a character from another and tell his/her story. But… how different would this story have been if it had been written by someone else?

Oh, and my favorite kid joke: “Knock-knock.” “Who’s there?” “Interrupting Cow.” “Interru-“ “MOO!”

jules: Good one. Oh, what do you pay to get in school? ATTENTION! I told that to just about every person I met for way too long in my formative years.

Okay, wow. Striking to me what you said about the scribblings in Octavian’s manuscript. I totally assumed that someone else did all that deleting, someone who had an ulterior motive for doing so. Hence my I-see-dead-people shivers when I suddenly saw that (you must have thought that was a strange reaction on my part if what you got from it is that Octavian himself deleted those words). It’s a possibility either way, I suppose, unless I’m just being really dense. The way you see it is something that never occurred to me. Gotta dig book discussions.

Dude, I’m sorry that I can’t add anything enlightening to the discussion of the fact that a Caucasian man wrote this book. Honestly, it never crossed my mind and, therefore, didn’t bother me — that is, the possibility of Great White Guilt, as you put it. Perhaps other readers will have thoughts on this (if they’ve made it this far in our post). I could wax philosophic on it now, but I never thought about it while reading, so I wouldn’t have any brilliant epiphanies for you and I’d kinda feel like a phony doing so. Others? Anyone out there reading this and have thoughts on this?

And, yeah, I know where Bazelon was coming from with the remoteness-of-Octavian comment . . . but there were so many truly heart-breaking and lovely moments (I use “lovely” too much on this site, but at least I try to avoid “charming,” “beautiful,” or “interesting”) . . . as I was saying, there were some really poignant moments for me, such as when he realized he didn’t know his mother’s first name (was that it? I can’t find the passage in the book, but I believe that was it). I thought Anderson more than made up for Octavian’s necessary remoteness with moments like that.

And I dig what you’re saying about his writing creating a distance for you as the reader, but I’ve never felt that myself. Instead, I’m so impressed by the meticulous research and then his ability to turn around and write something like:

My mother was found, later that day, down in the cellar of the main house. She had gone there alone. She had curled herself up tightly, her arms around her kneees, and sat in the complete darkness, blood spangling the silk of her dress like the gloaming stars first bleeding into evening.

Daaaamn. Think I can have him over for coffee, too? Really, I just found one of many dog-eared pages in my copy of this book and chose that one randomly to include; there were many passages like that for me that I thought were so . . . I don’t know
. . . eloquent might be the word I want.

Even though you felt that distance sometimes (which I can respect, and I know you really liked the book, too), wouldn’t you agree that this book is full of some indelible images (even beginning on the first page with the “floating lights in the apple-trees”)?

eisha: Oh, absolutely. Some utterly gorgeous images like the lights in the apple trees, and some horrific ones like the ravages of smallpox. It’s definitely got that going on.

And I hadn’t thought of the possibility that his journals had been censored by someone else – I guess that is possible, but somehow the scribbling looks so emotional, and given the subject matter that it conceals, I thought it was Octavian being unable to deal with what he’d seen, unable to just record it as an impartial observer, and just sort of exploding.

Did you love the Feed reference? At the pox party, when Dr. Trefusis says,

“When I peer into the reaches of the most distant futurity, I fear that even in some unseen epoch when there are colonies on the moon itself, there shall be gatherings like this, where the young, blinded by privilege, shall dance and giggle and compare their poxy legions.”

I kind of felt like I should have been upset by it, since it pokes through that fourth wall and intrudes on the story, but I actually thought it was pretty funny. I remember reading somewhere, ages ago (sorry, I looked but couldn’t find it again, or I’d cite it properly) that Feed was actually in part a critique on the modern American education system. I wonder if Octavian is meant to be, as well – I think there are elements of that, anyway, such as Mr. Sharpe’s technique of giving him boring technical passages in Greek and Latin to transcribe rather than the stories that Dr. Trefusis used, and the philosophers’ emphasis on weighing and measuring and recording such seemingly insignificant details about Octavian, while completely ignoring his basic humanity. If you want to get really metaphorical about it, maybe the daily ceremonial weighing of his feces represents standardized test scores.

Anyway, I’m about Octavianed out. How ’bout you, J?

jules: I didn’t know that about Feed and the critique’ing. Interesting. And now I see Octavian’s feces-weighing in a whooooole new way; that’s a pretty keen observation on your part and makes total sense.

As for the research Anderson’s put into the book, the linguist-nerd in me wants to know why Goring’s writing — which is typical for that time, I assume — has such intriguing capitalization rules (such as, “Your Heart would melt if you could see this Wretched, Silent Boy,” he writes to his sister). O Fruition, ‘Twas the Spirit of Capitalization in this novel Which hath intrigued me & Moved me. Seriously, I wanna look that up; mayhap I will find out if it’s typical writing of that time? Or ’twas ’cause Goring is of a Certain Class? Hmmm . . .

I don’t know that I contributed anything thought-provoking in any way, but, yes, I guess we’re done. This post is certainly long enough. Thanks for talkin’ books with me again, e. ‘Twas fun. I look forward to Octavian, the blockbuster sequel. Until then . . .

14 comments to “Octavian Nothing: Yeah, it won the NBA, but what you really want to know is… what do Jules and Eisha think?”

  1. Wow! That was fun to read–perfect for someone who just finished Octavian this morning (me). For what it’s worth:
    –I figured Octavian did the scribbles. “Emotional” is the perfect way to describe them.
    –I thought about the fact that Anderson is white and Octavian is black. Normally, I would doubt the authenticity of a writer writing as someone of another race. But, I think Anderson and Octavian have so much in common (brilliant, scholarly, outside of their cultures) that race is kind of transcended.
    –Got the feed reference. Loved it.
    Thanks for commenting on my blog, Jules. I’m adding you guys to my blogroll!

  2. Hey, Kate. Thanks for joining in – that’s a really good point about the shared traits of Anderson and Octavian. I hadn’t thought about it in that light…

  3. I wish I’d seen this review when I’d just finished the book and was DYING to talk about it.

    About the scribbles – I had a similarly violent gut reaction to them as jules, but it never occurred to me that anyone other than Octavian himself had done the scribbling out. My theory is that we’re just not used to things like that – you don’t expect to turn the pages of a hot-off-the-bookstore-shelf book and find dark, angry lines through the writing. It seemed to explain the sudden stop in Octavian’s writing and the switch to the letters. (I’m also betting that Anderson wrote those pages even though they were scribbled out.)

    Which, I loved. I adore Private Ev. Goring and his letters. I was vaguely thinking that the capitalization must be a holdover from German? That explains the nouns, at least – I believe all nouns are capitalized.

    This and Feed make perfect companion novels, in my mind. They both deal with extremes, and kids figuring out the world around them. And both worlds seem very different from our own, but of course turn out not to be all that different.

    I’m discussing this book at a mock-Printz workshop tomorrow and this has reminded me of several points to make (if my group members need convincing).

  4. Thanks so much for commenting. It’s really great to talk about it with others who have read it. I like hearing everyone’s thoughts on The Scribbles. Good luck with your mock-Printz workshop, and let us know if you hear any more thought-provoking points re the book at that.

    Oh, and good point about Goring’s thoughts. Interesting.

  5. On the question of why Pvt. Goring capitalizes Words in such an odd Manner, eighteenth-century prose writers were far more variable in their capitalization, spelling, and punctuation than we are now. In the most formal Prose, all Nouns started with a capital Letter, and proper Nouns started with a capital Letter and were italicized. But sometimes people capitalized words just to Emphasize them.

  6. Thanks, J.L.

    I hope M.T. will not mind us quoting him here. As he told us during our correspondence with him, leading up to the interview, “Evidence Goring — like many 18th C authors — capitalizes nouns and, occasionally, other important things. (This is the standard punctuation, for example, in Fielding’s novels.) As one of your posters suggests, this is analogous to German. In working on the book, I created a long set of examples of 18th C English to try to teach myself how to write in different registers and voices.” (He went on to joke that this was actually an exercise in neurosis than anything actually useful).

    And, for the record and if anyone else cares, he also told us re the scribbling that he didn’t want it to be immediately apparent, but he did imagine it as Octavian scribbling out what he himself couldn’t bear to have narrated. I believe he said that in the second volume we might see a scene in which we see the circumstances of the scribbling, but this could change, of course, for all we know before the book gets published. So, I was off about Octavian’s thoughts being erased by someone else — way off, but he did find my suggestion “wonderfully creepy,” I will humbly add. Ahem, patting myself on the back.

    Thanks again, J.L.

  7. Have you heard anything about a Vol 2? Can’t wait to see what happens next.

  8. The second book will be coming out in October, for all of you who’ve been wondering. 🙂

  9. I was made to read this book in english. i am in year nine. i really do not like this book. it is simply too obscure for my liking.

  10. I get that, Lucia. It’s long, and complicated, and is probably one of those love-it-or-hate-it books. Plus, sometimes just being forced to read a book makes it hard to like it. But you might like some of his other books, like Feed or Thirsty.

  11. I’m so glad a good book was put in the summer reading list for lowerclassmen for once. I feel like adults tend to underestimate the ability of teenagers to be willing to try and accept new/’challenging’ material. Inexperience doesn’t necessarily equate to stupidity. By all means question my cognitive abilities, but not over something as trivial as age…

    I definitely agree with your misgivings about the cover, though… On first impression it looked a little cheap, somehow. And the combination of the cover and the overpoweringly formal language in the introduction initially seemed pretentious. But indeedily do, judge not a book by its cover. Once you crawl past the first hesitant eyebrow-waggle and get a sense of the context the choice of words makes perfect sense.

    I’d actually started and finished the book today, before and after my final finals, and having done so I promptly googled the book, which is how I came across this review. Hooray for an awesome review! I’ll definitely keep checking back. =)

  12. […] “How much do you think the fact that this is a Caucasian man writing the story of an African American slave impacted the story? Is this a book about the Great White Guilt? Did it bother you at all? I think it bothered me a little – I mean, a good story is a good story, no matter who tells it, and I’m not saying a person from one race or culture doesn’t have the right to try to get inside the mind of a character from another and tell his/her story. But… how different would this story have been if it had been written by someone else?”  http://blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings/?p=359 […]

  13. […] I’m a slow reader these days, what with a busier schedule, and I’m still re-reading Octavian I so that I can be fully prepared for Octavian II. It’s just taking longer than I thought, as […]

  14. I first read this book in the 6th grade and though I had some trouble appreciating it I still loved the message and the, as you put it, I-see-dead-people goosbumps. And Julia, for your comment about the mother’s name. I believe he was speaking about his mother’s last name. I am reading this book for a 4th time (for a project this time) and I was dying to figure out why he referred to himself as Octavian “Nothing”. I believe he wished to name himself so he was no longer Octavian Gitney, after his master. It is at this point he realized that he never knew her last name.

    “How doth all that seeks to rise burn itself to nothing.”

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