M.T. Anderson has become known for novels both playful (Whales on Stilts!) and thought-provoking (Feed). Uniting all his works, though, is a startling originality, a creativity and sensitivity to language that reaches new heights in The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. The first volume, The Pox Party, is the beginning of a remarkably ambitious two-part work.
Octavian is, on the surface of things, a privileged young man. Dressed in clothing of the finest silks and satins, surrounded by the intellectual and artistic luminaries of 18th-century Boston, Octavian studies classical literature and excels at the violin. As Octavian grows up in the unusual surroundings of the Novanglian College of Lucidity, however, he begins to ask questions that have no easy answers: Why are Octavian and his mother, the foreign princess known as Cassiopeia, the only household members given names instead of numbers? For what purpose do the scholars study all of Octavian's bodily functions? What is the real nature of the experiments conducted behind locked doors?
As Octavian's awareness grows, his insulated surroundings are penetrated by stirrings of revolution. When the college's most ambitious experiment goes horribly awry, an increasingly melancholy Octavian must make his own way in a rapidly changing world. Set in the earliest days of the American Revolution, Octavian Nothing not only probes the sometimes troubling philosophical and political fixations of the time but also preserves the language of 18th-century literature. Such prose may seem challenging and old-fashioned at first, but make no mistake this is a thoroughly modern novel. Historically grounded, emotionally and philosophically complex, Octavian Nothing will compel readers to think differently about history and its echoes in the contemporary world.
Norah Piehl is a freelance writer and editor in the Boston area.