I have read the book, and it is us.
By which I mean M. T. Anderson’s book is thrilling, deep, and depressing. And by us I mean America.
By America I mean both the present day us, and the past us that, though part of the historical record, is a past that we have glibly and unknowingly passed by.
By us I of course mean me. So here forthwith find a paltry record of reading the following book.
Shortcut #43: M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume 2: The Kingdom on the Waves
This book’s pages flew through my hands much more swiftly that those of Volume 1, though for this fact I place no blame on Mr. Anderson, but on myself and my clumsy fingers and addled thoughts.
By which I mean that, having worked my way through Volume 1, I was fully invested in the characters and drawn along like a leaf in a tornado through Volume 2.
Though that’s not exactly the truth. What is the truth?
The Kingdom of the Waves is a much more conflicted and conflict-full book than The Pox Party, at least in the sense of outside action. With Octavian Nothing, the first book is full of the internal struggles of a young man trying to understand the world he’s been thrust into while the second book is the external struggle of that young man trying to change that world through direct action.
To be specific, Octavian joins with the loyalist forces in the Royal Ethiopian regiment that was formed by Lord Dunmore, Governor of Virginia, out of, mostly, escaped slaves. As you might expect, since the loyalist forces lost and the United States separated from England, things end badly.
And that is what is perhaps the most moving and the most depressing aspect of M. T. Anderson’s book. From the beginning, you know that things are not going to end well. Sure, in the beginning, you might think that Octavian will escape his owners and build a life for himself. I mean, it’s possible, however unlikely. But then when Octavian joins up with Lord Dunmore and the loyalists, we know there is only one possible result: failure.
In many ways, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is not a fun book to read. Neither the rebel colonists fighting for freedom nor the loyalists who are fighting to hold together their empire are presented in a good light. They both have very narrow views of liberty. For the proto-Americans, liberty is for the white man, and that liberty includes the right to own slaves. For the British, liberty is used as a political tool for undermining the rebellion.
In fact, there are no heroes in these books. There are just people, and those people are flawed. Sometimes grievously so, sometimes not, but in all cases the people we are introduced to are human, and therefore fallible, and Anderson does not skimp on showing their mistakes.
I make it sound like reading the two volumes of Octavian Nothing is a slog, but it is emphatically not so. The difficulty in reading comes in caring so much about the characters and knowing that, for the most part, they are doomed.
But the joy in reading originates from the beauty of the Anderson’s language, from the inventiveness with which he tells the story, and from the novel’s forcing on us a novel way to view the Revolutionary War. There aren’t many books that I would say this about (mostly, because I think the phrase is way too much overused in both blurbing and reviewing), but I think the two volumes of Octavian Nothing are a necessary read.
So go read them.