The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation: Vol. 1: The Pox Party tells the story of Octavian, a young slave boy who’s a living experiment conducted by the Novanglian College of Lucidity. Octavian’s life as an experiment began when the head of the College (Mr. Gitney) purchased Octavian’s pregnant, teenaged mother Cassiopeia at auction. Gitney decides to prove that Africans can be just as intelligent as white men if they’re given a proper education.
The book has a whole lot of sharp observations about the nature of education and about the terrible hypocrisy that American patriots committed when they made grand statements about British oppression and freedom while they continued to keep black people in slavery.
The themes and sociopolitical observations aside, one of the things that really impressed me about the book was its use of language. The diction and prose thoroughly convinces us that we’re reading something from the Revolutionary era, but it lacks the stuffiness of actual narratives from the late 18th Century. It conveys time and place but remains accessible to younger readers.
For instance, take this bit of speech from Octavian’s captor:
Mr. Sharpe stood above me, speaking in profile, declaring, oblivious to my convulsions, “The world, Octavian — the real world of objects — and not the phantasies in which you have been indulged in the outrageous luxuries of your upbringing here — is engaged entirely in commerce. Make no mistake of this. Look everywhere, Octavian, and you shall see nothing but exchange and consumption.” (Anderson 338)
As a start, the convoluted speech tag mimics the style of more antique fiction; a more modern styling of that might read something like “Sharpe stood above me, ignoring my vomiting.” Using “phantasies” instead of the modern spelling “fantasies” also aids in the retro feel of the passage, as does using “commerce” instead of “business” and so on. Word choice and phrasing work well here to make the reader believe that Sharpe is a speaker from a different century.
Convincing the reader that point-of-view characters are from a different era is of great interest to me considering I’ve been working on a novel set years before I was even born. In some ways my job is both simpler and more difficult, because it’s pretty easy to accidentally slip in slang or references that are just a little too modern to pass for something a teenager in 1964 would say or think or remember. I have to be just as careful as Anderson has been in making his narrative’s details and his characters’ speech seem authentic.
On a completely different note, I’m inclined to use passages from this book the next time I do a writing workshop that focuses on description or on characterization and dialog. I think it would be fun to have students look at Anderson’s passages, then try to rewrite them for another style and era: for instance, as a medieval fantasy, or as a modern-day noir, etc.
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