Shortcut #43: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation (Part 2)

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

Octavian Nothing 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.

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One Response to Shortcut #43: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation (Part 2)

  1. Jason Myers says:

    “For the proto-Americans, liberty is for the white man, and that liberty includes the right to own slaves.” A good portion of the founding fathers were opposed to slavery, according to their public statements, private letters, or both. The original draft of the Declaration of Independence contained language tailored specifically to address the incompatibility of slavery with liberty, but was taken out, probabably because someone realized that the Revolution would get crushed if Southern colonies weren’t part of the coalition. Sometimes I feel like history is mostly about creating myths, either white-washing the past or tsk-tsking it for reasons that are political or personal. Slavery (in its European and American incarnation) wasn’t about racism (not to start with) but about economic expediency (not that that makes it okay; it just makes it a different flavor than what most people understand). To start out with, slaves of all colors (including white) were common. But Africa became an easy source of slaves because tribes were all too happy to sell their captives, criminals, and other undersirables into slavery. Racism of the type we associate with Southern slave-holders was pretty much a byproduct of slavery, rather than slavery being a byproduct of racism. Half of slaves were shackled into slavery by their own society. Thomas Jefferson opposed slavery, but there’s some evidence that it was because he thought it was dangerous, rather than because he was a great humanitarian. Not sure what all that is supposed to add up to, other than we don’t learn as much from history as we should because each person and group and culture repurposes history to suit its own world view.

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