FEBRUARY 18, 2014
MY BOYFRIEND was in the car with me as I listened to the end of Part II of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. When it ended he asked, “If you could go back in time” — to the midst of the Revolutionary War, where Octavian Nothing concludes — “what would you do to change the course of history?”
I paused, then said the first thing that came into my mind: “Kill Thomas Jefferson.”
The first of Matthew Tobin Anderson’s two “Octavian Nothing” books racked up awards when they appeared in 2006 (The Pox Party) and 2008 (The Kingdom on the Waves): a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, two Boston Globe/Horn Book Awards, two Printz Honors. Jerry Griswold, in his New York Times review of the latter volume, said the first book “seemed like a comet out of nowhere — an impressive and profound story of race and revolution in America’s past.”
Griswold’s astronomical metaphor is apt: the books are lofty in tone and achievement, scientific in temperament, and altogether concerned with the mechanics of the universe. (In fact, the 1769 transit of Venus is a pivotal turning point in The Pox Party.) Octavian’s story is a bildungsroman writ large upon the nation that would become the United States. Bedecked in colorful silks and fine white wigs, virtuosic on the violin, fluent in Greek, Latin, and French, young Octavian lives among Enlightenment scholars who use a numerical system in place of names (such as 09-01) and where “they weighed what I ate when it went in, and daily took the measure of its transformation when it came out” on no less than a golden platter: Mr. 03-01, the master of the house, watching the process, would nod and declare some pronouncement: “Sallow in color […] watery in consistency; altogether a dispirited, morose ejection” or “Solid and stippled with corn […] brave and manly; a matter for some pride.”
Octavian comes to realize the Novanglian College of Lucidity — a scientific organization not unlike Benjamin Franklin’s American Philosophical Society, if perhaps more amateurish — is conducting a long-term experiment and he is its subject. Raised with stories of his exceptionally beautiful mother’s childhood in the Oyo Empire as a princess of the Egba people, Octavian believes he and his mother to be African royalty living as guests at the college. A servant in the household, Bono, a decade older than Octavian, punctures this fantasy with the news that he, Octavian, and his mother are all the college’s property: slaves. (British colonists established African slavery in Massachusetts in the early 17th century, where it would remain legal until 1781.) The college’s experiment is to measure whether or not Octavian, furnished with the finest European education the College can provide, can handle the intellectual rigors of Western thought. “We wish to divine,” the college’s head, Mr. Gitney (aka 03-01), explains, “whether you are a separate and distinct species.”
What a conceit! An arresting plot, it’s also a deft authorial sleight of hand. Anderson — a white man living in the 21st century — has created a character — an enslaved black man living in the 18th century — whose voice he can, for me, believably inhabit. Octavian is particular and unrepresentative, steeped in European thought, naïve to the horrors of slavery. His experience is neither more nor less important or moving because of this peculiarity, but it gives Anderson leeway. Enslaved characters with less unusual backgrounds appear throughout both books — literate Bostonian Bono, Oyo-native Olakunde, Virginians Pomp and Slant — but Anderson never gets inside their heads the way he does Octavian’s. Prince O, as Bono calls him, or Buckra (meaning “white man” or “boss”) by his regiment — is always a little bit apart, a little bit outside of their experience.
The books follow Octavian from the college’s takeover by southern slaveholders (who provide its funding) to the pox party of the first book’s title to a Continental army encampment in Cambridge to British-occupied Boston to Norfolk and the Royal Ethiopian Regiment, from around 1759 (Octavian’s birth) to 1776 (his regiment’s disbandment). Throughout Anderson maintains a high level of contemporary diction — what he once called “a kind of unintelligible 18th-century Johnsonian Augustan prose.” In Octavian’s voice “I understood what he said” is instead “I recognized what he imputed.” It is a staggering feat, and a felicitous one. Here we are, in the 1700s.
There’s an uneasy balance in audiobook reviewing between the critique of the audio and the critique of the book. Which one is of paramount importance? Can a bad book be made better by a particularly exuberant narrator? Can a wonderful book be ruined by a plodding, clunky one? My answer to the previous question is “maybe”; to the latter, “sort of.” For an audiobook to really work, both audio and book must each pull their own weight.
I’ve been listening to audiobooks since they were books on tape. A recording offered me entrance into books I was unable (or unwilling) to tackle on the page: Anne of Green Gables, Where the Red Fern Grows, and, bizarrely, Orlando, of which I understood little but listened to in its entirety. I lost the habit in high school but picked it up again after college: a dawning age of commutes. They are wonderful to listen to while walking, and not bad on the subway either if you want to simultaneously people-watch or if there’s too little room to hold aloft a hardback. Now that I drive, audiobooks are the only thing that makes my commute bearable. I am reading, I tell myself, this time is not wasted.
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, narrated by actor Peter James Francis, makes for a satisfying marriage of form and content. Francis’s deep baritone pleases the ear; his mastery of accents, his grasp of character, his crisp pronunciation all make the book come alive in his cadence. Still, when I checked out the hardback versions of The Pox Party and The Kingdom on the Waves for this article (it is admittedly easier to quote from print than audio), I was surprised by what I found, or, rather, what I hadn’t heard. The books are collections of “historical” materials: diary entries by Octavian, maps, bills of sale, letters, scribbled over text. Though most of these come over in the audiobook, not all do.
This is one of the perils of audiobooks — the risk of missing something — but it’s one I have resigned myself to. Even when an audio version of a book is able to represent the whole of a text, the nature of listening makes for more skittish, touch-and-go consumption. Distraction is part and parcel of any experience of reading — a teakettle whistles, a cellphone buzzes, a line of dialog reminds you of yesterday’s conversation, you forget which character that particular name belongs to — but in print, if you wander, the story stays put. With an audiobook, the story goes on without you.
I take in more books because of audio recordings, and I am not willing to give that up because the medium has its imperfections. I can’t consume a print book while driving, after all. And so generally I’ve tried to choose books that might be most forgiving of tiny lapses in attention: nonfiction, YA, or plot-heavy genre fiction. Octavian Nothing, though I would hesitate to call it either YA or plot-heavy (albeit neither inappropriate for teens nor without plot), also works well in this format. After all, there is a singular pleasure in hearing a good story told aloud; some internal switch flips on during a bedtime story or campfire yarn or long bar joke. Language is music again.
What’s most impressive to me about these two books is how ahistorical they feel. Fictional treatments of past events are so often full of knowing winks. These campy reanimations of historical moments reward readers with a self-congratulatory feeling of omniscience: all little do they know and we know better now. I’m reminded of books like The Good Lord Bird (that Mr. Douglass sure is talkative!) or television shows like Mad Men (get that pregnant woman a cigarette!): it’s not a bad way of talking about the past, just not an entirely honest one. It’s more about us, ultimately, than them. In Andersen’s novels, it’s rarely clear what exactly is going on, history-wise, because it was profoundly unclear to the participants of the American Revolution what was going on, much less what was going to happen next. Rumor abounds — Octavian gleans his information from half-truths, pessimistic prognostication, expressions of hope.
“I wanted to recreate that sense of the unknown at the beginning of the Revolution,” Andersen said in a 2007 NPR interview, “to show that therefore white and black — everyone — was engaged in a kind of a heroism […] more spectacular than that which we ascribe to them when we assume everything is predetermined.”
In one notable feat of self-control, Andersen lets July 4, 1776 pass by unremarked upon, unremarkable. How else could it be for a regiment of formerly enslaved British soldiers, battling small pox and malaise on a floating city of boats in the Chesapeake Bay?
In the second volume, The Kingdom on the Waves, Octavian leaves British-occupied Boston to enlist in Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment in Norfolk. He’s spurred by Dunmore’s 1775 proclamation, as the Royal Governor of Virginia, promising freedom to men who fled their Patriot slave owners and joined the British army — the first mass emancipation of slaves in the yet-to-be-born country’s history. There Octavian wears, with his fellow soldiers, shirts embroidered with the words “Liberty to Slaves.” At their largest, the Ethiopian Regiment numbered around 800 men, but up to 2,000 enslaved people reached Dunmore looking for freedom. Tens of thousands more escaped during course the Revolution.
While up to a fifth of the northern Continental army was made up of (free and enslaved) black soldiers, slaves — especially in the South — looked to the British as a force for liberation. Though General Cornwallis surrendered his black troops to re-enslavement after the Battle of Yorktown, Britain evacuated thousands of others after the war to colonies like Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, making good on their promise of freedom.
In the same interview with NPR, Anderson explains that there are “two interlocking revolutions going on at the same time,” that “this set of enslaved people, they are creating a revolution at their own level.” Neither British nor Patriot forces held the moral high ground when it came to slavery during the American Revolution (though the Patriots were a good deal more hypocritical about it): both were concerned with protecting the property rights of their supporters and destroying the wealth and resources of their opponents, and approached the matter with cold, cruel pragmatism. Still, one of the astonishing things about Octavian Nothing is that it can convince a reader educated in the bravado and nobility of the American Revolution to wish, for a time, that the British had won. At the very least so the thousands who fled to Dunmore could have had their freedom guaranteed. Once the war ended, the provisional safety the Loyalist forces provided to those fleeing slavery evaporated. True liberty would not arrive for another eighty years.
In his afterword to Kingdom on the Waves, Andersen writes:
In the course of my research for this book, I have come to believe that the American Republic would not have survived its early years — would not have made it through the War of 1812 — if it had not been fueled and funded by two profound acts of ethnic violence: the establishment of slavery and the annexation of Native American lands, both of which practices played a major part in the inception and conduct of the Revolution. The freedom — economic, social and intellectual — enjoyed by the vocal and literate elite of the early Republic would have been impossible if it had not been for the enslavement, displacement and destruction of others.
It was jarring to hear this fact so plainly spoken, though its one I have understood for most of my adult life: that the United States is a country built on blood, constructed from blood, watered with blood. I think perhaps somewhere in the back of my mind I had hoped, wished for, another country; a shadow version of the United States not fueled by the economic engine of human suffering, of genocide. Andersen here makes explicit that even this private, shadow country — this better version of the nation of my birth — can never have existed. Everything the United States is or ever has been came with a profound and inexcusable cost. It is not a case of despite, but because of.
And then, the audiobook ended. My boyfriend and I were on Merritt Parkway in Connecticut, heading back to Massachusetts. One of us put music on. After a moment, he asked me what I would do, with the power of foresight and time travel, to change the fate of the country — to make it better. I thought of Octavian, who at the book’s end flees to a maroon settlement, an independent community of escaped slaves located comfortably west of the young nation’s borders, to rejoin friends. (Some of these communities, notably in the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia, persisted until emancipation; most were destroyed as white people moved west.) It felt like an impossible question: even in the late 18th century, nothing but force would liberate the enormous wealth represented by nearly 700,000 enslaved human beings from its owners. It’s a point Andersen makes painfully clear in both volumes of Octavian Nothing. So I, in the split-second electric math of the mind, changed the terms of the question. Without the possibility of justice, I would seek revenge. I named my victim.
“Anyone who owns his own children deserves to die,” I said. (Eventually — eventually — all were freed, but still.) “I don’t care that he wrote the Declaration anymore.” (And really, how hollow that accomplishment feels next to these facts.)
Octavian’s dream for his better America, for the shadow country that would never come and could never exist, is a distant victorious day. Surrounded by his friends, his fellow veterans, he dreams “that one day we should all sit at the same table on Thanksgiving; that we should show our children our shirts, and tell them tales of when we were young.”
“I envision the future day when this campaign is finished, and we grown older and commenced men of means — with wives of our own, and children, and farms, perhaps, laid about with barns. Olakunde shall be the Ovid of far Oyo, writing the tales of Africk metamorphoses; and Pomp recording his ghost stories of a winter night. I shall write sonatas en trio; and Slant perhaps shall be the proprietor of his own plantation.”
It is a fiction, but a beautiful one.
 The Yoruban Oyo Empire lasted from roughly 1400 to 1905 in what is now western Nigeria; the Egba are a Yoruba clan.
 In fact, one the Declaration’s listed grievances is that British government “has excited domestic insurrections amongst us” — a reference to Dunmore’s proclamation.