Plot: Octavian and his mother live at the Novanglian College of Lucidity in Boston among a set of philosophers. Taught by these men to think rationally, observe, and question, before long Octavian begins to question his lifestyle and the many experiments involved in it. Trespassing behind a forbidden door, he discovers to his horror that he is central to the philosophers’ experiments and observations as they set out to determine the character and intellectual capacities of the African race. As the colonies tremble with the beginnings of a revolution for liberty, the College loses funding and Octavian becomes less and less sure of his role in this world. Should he succeed at escaping, what purpose would it serve? Has his classical training made him useless in a society divided by liberty and property, and can he ever really be free?
Setting: Colonial Massachusetts, just before and at the start of the American Revolution.
Point of View: 1st person (Octavian), 1st person (Mr. Goring). Other characters also contribute 1st-person narrative, however the bulk of the narrative is given to Octavian with a large chunk also held by Mr. Goring.
Theme: Slavery, science, American Revolution, colonial history, Enlightenment, self-identity, racism, freedom, mother-son relationships, societal norms and values, injustice
Literary Quality: The first volume of Anderson’s 2-part saga is truly a work of art. Written in the form of a compilation of historical documents to tell a single narrative, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing delves into important historical questions at the same timer hat it brings a fascinating and very human character to life. Anderson took on a daunting task with this novel, looking at the nuances of slavery, scientific inquiry, freedom, and hypocrisy while attempting to portray the uncertain outcomes, immense hopes, and cruelty of the American Revolution. His novel successfully depicts what nonfiction historical monographs often fail to: the interconnectedness of all of these issues that are often studied separately, the ambiguity of sides and coexistence of ideals in a single individual, let alone society, and the possibility of history taking new directions. Indeed, it is often difficult to think of historic events and outcomes as anything but inevitable. At the same time that Anderson accomplishes this, Octavian comes to life — slowly but surely — and drives the reader to ask with him the reasons for his training, his treatment and mistreatment, and to what hope he might cling. In the end, Anderson’s well-crafted work illustrates a point that university professors struggle to teach: the hypocrisy of a society still largely functioning along a socially constructed dichotomy of color and race: “they told me of color, that it was an illusion of the eye, an event in the perceiver’s mind, not in the object, they told me that color had no reality; indeed, they told me that color did not inhere in a physical body any more than pain was in a needle. And then they imprisoned me in darkness, and though there was no color there, I still was black, and they still were white; and for that, they bound and gagged me.” (316) Anderson tells us something of the process through which history is constructed, too. Octavian’s voice comes and goes. Shortly after his revelation (which we learn through another’s voice) that he is “nothing,” his voice disappears for the second part of the book, returning in the third with more confidence and anger. However, when considering the title of the book, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, the reader faces the suggestion that it is the philosophers who won after all. That they have put these sources together and manipulated them to speak. That Octavian continues to be observed as a specimen.
Cultural Authenticity: Anderson’s Author’s Note at the end of the book explains some of the sources and events on which is novel is based, his decisions about grammar and word-use, and offers an excerpt from one of his primary sources.
Audience: I would recommend this book for older teens and up. Anderson’s marketing of the book to both teenagers and adults makes sense based on the age of the protagonist and his coming-of-age, as well as the historical and social questions stake.
Personal reaction: It took me about 30-50 pages to really get into this book, which I thought moved a bit slowly at first. From that point on, though (and there are 353 pages), I was hooked. Once I had decided that Anderson wasn’t just including historical details unnecessarily (deism, philosophies, salons…the extension of the French Enlightenment into the colonies in general) but had a point to make (and more importantly that familiarity with those details wasn’t essential to understanding the story), I fell in love with the book. While deconstructing “black” and “white,” Anderson also creates characters who possessed both lovable and detestable traits. Octavian’s mother, Mr. Gitney, Mr. Goring, etc. all have traits that might be considered despicable, and yet there are moments when I admire them as well. These dynamics are humanizing, and bring the story that much closer to home.