Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Volume I: The Pox Party

Though I’ve read very few young adult novels, I honestly haven’t seen what makes them so different from adult fiction. To me it’s more a choice of whether the content can be marketed better to the growing legions of children who only have so much Harry Potter to read, rather than something endemic that delineates it from general fiction. A couple of months ago I read Jenny Davidson’s The Explosionist which I thought was decent, though I did feel that seventeen year old girls likely think about sex more than the protagonist did. But the experience made me want to explore a new area by trying out some of the more acclaimed young adult fiction, especially to test my thesis: is the young adult genre merely for marketing, or is there a real separation between it and mainstream literature.

The touted release of the second volume in M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation series called my attention to the first, which won the National Book Award for Young Adult Literature. Entitled The Pox Party, the narrative concerns the young black boy Octavian born shortly before the American Revolution, who is raised in a house with his mother and a group meant to resemble the Royal Society in aim but not in reach. The boy is taught Latin and the arts, learns to play brilliantly on the violin, but also is subject to some rather bizarre experimentation: all his food is weighed, as are his feces, so that calculations as to his usage can be performed.

After the house, the College of Lucidity, loses its benefactor, Octavian begins to get a sense of the treatment other black men and women are subject to. He is deprived of his books and whipped often. In an attempt to study the varying effect of smallpox on a large white and black population, Mr. Gitney, head of the college, recruits those who haven’t experienced the illness and offers to house and infect them with a mild strain so that they may build immunity to the disease without worry that it could be an especially virulent form. Though all are infected, only two people die: one being Octavian’s mother.

The novel is said to be drawn from the later writings of Octavian, and upon witnessing the death of his mother the reader is subjected to the scratching out of print that had already been laid out. While one can make out a word here and there, Octavian’s response to his mother’s death is more powerful for what we don’t see. The page acts as a palimpsest that can be read concurrently in two ways. An intriguing effect.

Where Anderson lost me was in the third section, where all information is conveyed through letters of a Patriot soldier home to his sister. This soldier meets Octavian, who has escaped enslavement, and so we still follow the boy’s story and are filled in on aspects of what is happening within the greater context of the war, a decision I understand even if I don’t share. Losing the voice of Octavian lost this reader, and only when that voice returns in a later section did I reengage with the narrative.

Even without the Volume I on the cover, one would know that a Volume II is planned because we get no real satisfaction out of the journey. In fact, the arc of this novel is hard to establish. I have guesses as to how it can be defined, but without reading the second (and possibly third) volumes, I can’t know if my hunches are accurate or not.

Still, there was a lot to like in The Pox Party, especially the character of Octavian who anyone will come to care about deeply within the first fifty pages. I’ll be reading more of Anderson before too long, though probably not more about Octavian for a while. And I would appreciate recommendations of other young adult literature you feel would be worth looking into.

1 comment:

Steve said...

I wrote a big long response to this post and it got lost because something's wrong with OpenID, and I'm too frustrated to retype now.

Remind me, and I'll do it later-- Anderson visited UConn last week and spoke some on the issue of audience when it comes to YA fiction.