Review: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to theNation, Volume I, by M. T. Anderson

This book is exquisite. Seriously: the prose is so good that I want to roll around in it. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation (Volume I: The Pox Party) is exquisitely written, and tells the story of one Octavian Gitney, a boy slave raised by a New England philosophical society just prior to and during the American revolutionary war. Octavian and his mother, Princess Cassiopeia, live a life of leisure; Octavian, dressed in finest silks, is taught Latin, Greek, and music from boyhood, receiving one of the finest classical educations of his day.

Until it all changes, that is.

The war plays havoc in Boston — rumours are adrift, smallpox is marching toward the city, the British navy is massing in the harbour, and nobody knows which side will win. Octavian’s master and all his household remove to the country for a Pox Party; they will innoculate themselves against the coming plague, and dance the war away.

Until that all changes, too.

I don’t want to give too much away, because this is a book full of twists and turns, and it’s so beautifully written that I’d want all of you to just go out and read it, anyway. Here are four passages to whet your appetite. The first begins a day out in the country:

Shortly after two o’clock on June 3rd, 1769, Venus descended into the plane of the ecliptic and came between the Earth and sun. It is with awe that I treat of the event — so minute, so silent here upon the Earth — but there — one can scarce imagine the roaring of that vast orb through those frigid depths, tumbling, flung through the plane of our orbit; the glaring heat, the searing glare of Sol — and the gargantuan prodigality of that body, consuming its own substance ceaselessly while planets whirled like houris, veiled and ecstatic around the thrown of some blast-turbaned, light-drunken king. (96)

The second is the most elegant way I’ve ever read of telling someone to do what she tells him to do:

“Mademoiselle, you are delightfully scurrilous.”

“This is no banter, sir. This is no game.” I could hear the fury in her voice. “This is no jest, no frolic, no badinage. I was a princess, once; I am a princess still. Royal blood will mix only with other royal blood. Otherwise, it demeans the line. Tell me what nation you offer me, what alliance, what regal house — or leave.”

Still in a tone of play, he said, “My lady, you know what scepter I offer, and what orbs.”

There was a stunned silence. And then she replied, “Then, sir, look out at the privy. There is my throne. Reach inside, sir, and you shall find the wedding feast. Eat well, My Lord. Eat abundantly.” (107)

This passage comes during the preparations for the Pox Party:

A harpsichord was rented for the festivities. We placed it in one of the experimental chambers and hauled the philosophic machines against the wall so there should be space for dancing. The day before the party, one of the grooms was employed to wax the floor.

He wore a slipper on one foot and a brush on the other. They required him to dance there alone for three hours.

I passed and watched.

In the silence, he skated.

The afternoon sun was cast across the floor. Where the bowing and leaping should soon commence, there the old man slid and spun by himself, his arms fluttering, making pretty courtesies to chairs; pausing for a pas de Basque; his heels thumping; executing secret glissades in beeswax.

Silence and sunlight were his partners. (188)

And after Octavian does some very exciting things, and then has time to repose:

The times, the seasons, the signs may have been mythical; but the sufferings were not. I lay in the dark with the breathing of men around me and knew that then, at that selfsame moment, where dawn groped across the sea, my brethren lay bound in ships, one  body atop another, smelling of their green wounds and fæces; I knew in dark houses, there was torture, arms held down, firebrands approacing the soft skin of the belly or arm; and still — there is screaming in the night; there is flight; mothers sob for children they shall not see again; girls feel the weight of men atop them; men cry for their wives; boys dangle dead in the barn; and we smoke their sorrow contentedly; and we eat their sorrow; and we wear their sorrow; and wonder how it came so cheap. (326)

This was the book that had me incoherently tweeting about wanting to lick prose. It’s gorgeous and difficult and poignant, and I think it will stay with me for a very long time.

4 thoughts on “Review: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to theNation, Volume I, by M. T. Anderson

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