In Bookland, there’s nothing as satisfactory as picking up a book with no prior knowledge or expectations regarding its plot or style, and being completely dazzled by the entire experience once you’re through it. Such was the case with M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Vol. 1. M.T. Anderson gained some notoriety after publishing (the sadly not readily available on Amazon) Feed, a YA cyberpunk novel and a National Book Award Finalist, but I’m sure there weren’t too many people who saw this one coming!
The premise of Octavian Nothing couldn’t be any more different (though in hindsight, there are definitely similarities of the dystopian kind – I guess Octavian Nothing is the 18th century version of cyberpunk). Set in revolutionary Boston between 1760 and 1775, Octavian recounts his life story. With his West-African mother, Princess Cassiopeia, he is raised by the (pseudo-)scientists of the Novanglian College of Lucidity, in deceivingly ideal circumstances. Despite the fact that both get everything they desire, Octavian is raised merely for scientific reasons: the research into the (un)equality between the races. Octavian receives the type of education a wealthy old-world nobleman would receive. He is not only taught Greek and Latin, but even becomes a prodigy violinist who can entertain guests, accompanied by his mother on the harpsichord, and is well on his way to become a truly enlightened rational observer. One of the more ‘extravagant’ eccentricities of his upbringing is the fact that his excrements are weighed daily… Octavian and his mother’s luck changes when the circumstances in volatile 1770s Boston change, and the main financer of the College dies. With this change the reader also senses that – despite Octavian’s true desire to prove his worth – the outcome of the experiment is highly dependent on the prejudices and the political persuasion of the scientists as well as the financers.
Though the story in itself is already one both of horror and amazement, and would make for compelling reading no matter what, what makes this book truly special is the style and language used by M.T. Anderson. From cover to cover, Anderson captures every inkling of 18th century writing: from the cover and the title page, to the indisputable (and truly challenging) 18th century language, to the epistolary interlude between Private Evidence Goring and his sister Fruition… this novel breathes authenticity despite the fact it was written a mere 5 years ago. The amount of (historical) research not just to get the facts right (though the College of Lucidity is fictional, such organizations and philosophies did in fact exist during the American Revolution) but also to get the language both as authentic as possible as well as entertaining enough to appeal to 21st century readers must have been enormous and is indeed no mean feat. The fact that this book is (was) marketed at a YA audience is an even more challenging choice and definitely a daring decision by author and publisher. To be sure, and age put aside, you have to be one truly gifted individual to get things in this book from the get-go. But, once you’re into the book – and it doesn’t really take long before Octavian’s narrative just sucks you right in – what you get is truly rewarding and leaves you wanting to read more – luckily the cat does not have to wait for Volume2!
The cat does not want to spoil any of the story, but she does have to mention the Pox Party (yes, yes, this is a party with smallpox at the center of things…) of the title, if not for the fact that this is where the story takes a turn towards the dramatic, both for Octavian and the reader. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party, is despite (or thanks to) its challenging – and probably for some off-putting – and lusciously archaic language, one of the most humane of novels you’ll ever read about one of the most inhumane practices in history. Slavery and/in the American Revolution were already the topic of another duet of books by Laurie Halse Anderson (which the cat thoroughly enjoyed, btw), but the term ‘enjoyment’ lacks some of the awesomeness the cat wants to bestow on M.T. Anderson: definitely a writer whose talent matches his literary ambition, YA or otherwise.
 Anderson refers to David Hume – a known empiricist – who held similar beliefs as the scientists of the College of Lucidity