Friday, November 21, 2008

Guest blogger Matthew Cheney reviews The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Vol. II

In Which a Guest Blogger Ponders
the Limits of Reviewing,
and in Particular Certain Books,
viz. Octavian Nothing, Volume II

In 2006, I wrote on my own blog about M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation; vol. 1: The Pox Party, one of my favorite books of recent years, a book I have no reservations about calling a masterpiece and even, perhaps, a work of genius.

I put off reading the second volume, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation; vol. 2: The Kingdom on the Waves until recently, mostly because I feared disappointment. There is often talk of the difficulties writers have with a second book -- "the sophomore slump" -- but there is a similar difficulty for readers, one that occurs not only with sequels, but also with any second encounter with an author who once blew your mind. Merely replicating the experience is not enough. Once a mind has been blown, it develops tough scar tissue, and a larger force is necessary next time.

Or, rather, I should say, "Once my mind has been blown..." I have no doubt that there are readers who have much less durable scar tissue than I. I've met them. Some of them are my friends. I envy them all. They enjoy reading much more than I do, because it provides reliable pleasure. Reading, for me, provides an immense amount of disappointment, frustration, and vexation. The scar tissue is just too thick, and Kafka's axe needs sharpening after each successful blow. The reason I keep reading is that when I do encounter something like the first volume of Octavian Nothing, the effect is overwhelming -- the joy of reading the book has stuck with me and returns even now when I hold the memory of that reading experience in mind.

I am stalling. Dissembling. Dithering. I am reluctant to say what I should say, and what I should say is that, yes, the second volume of Octavian Nothing disappointed me. Worse, I sometimes found it tedious, a word I would never associate with the first volume. I want to explore that response here not in the way I might in a review, which at least tries to appear to rise above the reviewer's own particular tastes and situation. Here I want to indulge the very subjectivity we so often hide in reviews, since the job of the reviewer is to make the (futile, perhaps) attempt to speak to more than one person's experience of a book. No, this experience is mine alone.

I have seldom had a more complex reaction to a book than I have had to Octavian Nothing II. It is an impressive novel, as assured in its technique as the first volume, and I have no trouble saying that the two books together are equal and perhaps superior to one of my childhood favorites, Johnny Tremain. Only a few other new novels published this year (that I am familiar with) are as richly textured or as deeply thoughtful as Anderson's. It should solidify his place not only among writers for young adults, but among the pantheon of important American writers.

And yet, of the 561 pages of text in the beautifully-produced Candlewick Press edition of the novel, I found somewhere around 300 of them generally unengaging and sometimes utterly, painfully dull. I don't expect the majority of readers will have this experience, though, and many will probably enjoy the second book more than they enjoyed the first.

One of the great virtues of the first book, for me, was that it was not primarily about action. Certainly, plenty of events occur and actions are taken. But the actions and events are scaffolding for ideas -- in fact, I have no hesitancy about calling the first volume a novel of ideas. This particularly makes sense given its setting: Octavian is the subject of experiments by philosophers who seem, to our 21st-century eyes, insane and cruel, but who operated from perfectly justifiable beliefs by 18th-century standards. Part of the joy (and horror) of the first novel derives from how beliefs different from our own lead to various actions, and how characters respond to those actions in differing ways, producing new ideas that also lead to new actions.

The second volume continues to have actions that derive from ideas, but there are fewer ideas, and most of them are familiar from the first volume. The second volume has at its center Octavian's time as a soldier with Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment, a group of (primarily) freed and escaped slaves recruited by the British army to fight against the rebels in the American Revolution. Neither the Loyalist viewpoint nor the experience of African Americans in the Revolution has been common in fiction (Kenneth Roberts wrote from the Loyalist POV in 1940's Oliver Wiswell and notable recent examples of the POV of slaves include Christian Cameron's Washington & Caesar and Laurie Halse Anderson's Chains). It is important for us to see the Revolution from these perspectives, though, because the exhortations of "liberty" and "freedom" that fueled the rebels rung hollow for African Americans, and the debate about slavery was an important part of the debate about independence from Britain. The British, particularly Lord Dunmore, understood this, and Dunmore's November 14, 1775 Proclamation had a tremendous effect, helping to cause what historian Gary B. Nash has called "the greatest slave rebellion in North American history -- one almost too shocking for the American public to contemplate even now."

Dunmore's proclamation was not a key to perfect liberty, though, and there was no easy choice for slaves during the Revolution, because despite fine words from both sides about natural rights, most Americans and British were only willing to emancipate the other side's slaves. Anderson does an excellent job of showing the dilemma's Octavian faces as he contemplates freedom (the idea and actuality), and the last sections of the second volume are powerful, presenting us with an Octavian who has experienced great loss and disappointment and who struggles against an entirely justified bitterness.

The hundreds of pages that caused me such disappointment, though, were the middle ones. Octavian and Dr. Trefusis escape Boston and go to Virginia, where Octavian joins the Ethiopian Regiment and reunites with his friend Pro Bono (who has renamed himself William Williams). The beginning of this section is fascinating, because Octavian now moves from the rarified, upper-class atmosphere of the College of Lucidity and must live and work with people who have experienced the more common and ordinary forms of slavery. His manners, his words, and his ability to read all raise suspicions. Anderson is smart and informed enough not to make these encounters simple, and he convincingly imagines other rifts within the group -- tensions between, for instance, people who have recently been brought to the colonies from Africa and people who have never set foot on the continent of their heritage, as well as tensions between people of different ethnic groups within Africa. What unites people? becomes a potent, nagging question throughout the novel.

The central section of the book is important, too, because there is so little historical evidence of what the members of the Ethiopian Regiment experienced. Their stories have been forgotten, neglected, lost. There are various reports of what happened to and with the Regiment (reports to which Anderson is faithful), but just about nothing reveals the inner lives of the slaves and soldiers at the time. Here is where historical fiction, carefully and responsibly imagined, enters, presenting us with educated guesses about daily lives lost to a historical shroud.

The problem for me as a reader was that Octavian's experience is oftentimes one of waiting and wondering, and very little of his waiting and wondering allowed new insights into the world or characters, insights that I had not gleaned from the previous book or could not have figured out on my own. This is a particular problem for me as a reader: I quickly grow bored when the writer spends time describing or explaining things I could have imagined or figured out without much help. The brilliant strangeness of the first volume disappears in the second, when Octavian is in situations familiar from other historical fictions. Similarly, the many scenes of disease are less powerful in the second volume because the scenes of disease in the first volume were so effective, both agonizingly sad and achingly suspenseful. The second volume's central story is so much one of "and then this happened, and this happened, and this happened..." that I often found it difficult to care much for any of the actions or the characters attached to them.

And here the reviewer must stop and emphasize that first-person singular pronoun. I have become peculiarly indifferent to the sorts of narratives that are fundamentally about what happens next. Or rather, I have become indifferent to these sorts of narratives in written fiction -- I'm still perfectly capable of enjoying them in movies and TV shows, which is a good thing, because that's what 99% of movies and TV shows are based on. I used to be able to read such stories with at least a little bit of pleasure, but not in recent years, despite my attempts again and again. I like my fiction to gain its momentum from something other than action and event, partly because when I desire action and event, I watch a movie or TV show -- a quicker, easier return on the time investment.

What the second volume of Octavian Nothing has going for it beyond the questions of freedom and history, beyond the actions and events, is the language, and had this been my first encounter with M.T. Anderson's faux-18th-century style, that probably would have been enough to keep me going strong through the middle section. Here is where the first volume most obviously got in my way as a reader -- the language of that first book thrilled me because it was such an excellent performance, and because Anderson, like all great performers, made it seem effortless. The second volume is equally excellent and seemingly effortless, but it is no longer new. Indeed, I even began to quibble with it in a way that I did not when reading the first volume. (Why, I wondered, did he employ so many short paragraphs and short sentences? When reading the first volume, I thought this was a fine strategy for creating a version of 18th-century style that is more accessible to modern readers than a more accurate approximation would be -- Anderson generally gives us 18th century vocabulary within 21st century structures -- but by the middle of the second volume, I kept pining for [if faux] Pynchon or [if real] Sterne. I swatted these thoughts away with a qualm-swatter built from my respect for what Anderson really had accomplished, but nonetheless, they buzzed through my head throughout the second half of the book.)

All of which is just to say that there is no justice in continuing to write well after writing a masterpiece. Or, more accurately, that the reader who has perceived the previous book as a masterpiece is a reader unlikely ever to be pleased by what follows. Or, still more accurately, that when I am that reader, I am unlikely to be pleased.... (Here is where the reviewer is little more than a child whining: "But I want it the way I want it!")

Finally, I thought I might end all this divagating with an example of Anderson's extraordinary writing, because though the second volume had me swatting at qualms and left me wishing for something to blow through the scar tissue of my mind, it is moments such as the following that make me think, despite my own inability to truly appreciate it, the book is nearly the masterpiece of its predecessor:
When it was ordered that the soldiers should bathe in saltwater twice daily to fend off disease, I saw a reigment walk into the sea at dawn.

The ocean was ruddy, as were they, and some passed into the sea from the shingle, and others rose from the sea and waded to shore. They came forth dripping, shivering, naked, and made for the land, lit by the first sun, as if the Creator had determined to make a new race of men from the foam, this one perfected, gentle, and dandled by light.


Bobbie said...

I ordered volume I for my 12-year-old son for Christmas and now can't wait to read it myself before giving it to him (carefully paying attention to the binding, of course). He's nearing the end of his fascination with fantasy novels (of the Harry-Potter ilk) and is now interested in historical fiction. And sometimes what has happened historically (the "experiment" you allude to, for instance, of philosophers acting from "perfectly justifiable beliefs"--well put, by the way) is more fantastical than stories of life in other dimensions.

Fascinating review. I'm so glad when I see writers treating young adults as intelligent audiences who enjoy being challenged.

Sheila said...

Thank you for the review. I loved the first one, but haven't read the second yet. Fortunately for me, my scar tissue is quite thin, so I think I'll enjoy it. I just have a deep stack to work through first.

Last year, I'd have to say the two young adults books that most blew my mind were Octavian and Fly By Night by Francis Hardinge. Have you read that? I did like A Drowned Maiden's Hair, which you stopped reading at page 60, so you can take that recommendation with that in mind.

oliviaharis said...

This was well written. I've never seen it so I'm interested in learning about something new.
And thanks very much for the post. Thanks so much for taking the time to write it all down!
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