The story is set, although this only becomes clear gradually, in Boston in the years leading up to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, within the walls of an institution called the Novanglian College of Lucidity. No doubt intentionally, Anderson keeps the books setting somewhat of a mystery. Despite its Gothic overtones early in the story, "Octavian Nothing" could be England, could be the future or could be the past. Only gradually does the terrible significance of the story's place and time become clear.
Octavian and his mother, the princess Cassiopeia, are the only people within the College who have names, everyone else being known, until the College's fortunes fall, strictly by rationally designated numbers. Octavian, the subject of a grand experiment, is raised in a perfectly rational manner and given the best education that the Age of Enlightenment has to offer; he speaks fluent Latin and classical Greek, is proficient in "the calculus," and plays the violin like an angel, or the devil. His mother, beautiful and accomplished, is the sun around which the College's solar system revolves until she refuses the advances of the College's patron, who leaves the College broke. After this the College's experiment is reformulated, and Octavian begins for the first time to question his own existence. After a disastrous "pox party" at which the inmates and intimates of the College repair to the countryside outside of Boston to infect themselves with smallpox, and thusly inoculating themselves, Octavian escapes the college for the Continental Army.
With "Octavian Nothing" it is clear that "Mr. M.T. Anderson of Boston," as the title page describes him, has at last found the story he was born to tell. I disliked Anderson's previous books, including "Feed," simply because something in his tone simply rubbed me the wrong way, but I had no such qualms about "Octavian Nothing." The novel mostly takes the form of Octavian's journal (complete, in some sections, with cross-outs, ink blots and newspaper clippings), and though in some sections Anderson's style could be described as "Mason & Dixon lite" this does the book only good. As Octavian writes, "The tumults of the times are oft passed by in records of the private memoirists; for our days consist not of the Senatorial speech and the refracted solar beam cast through heroic cloud, but rather of bread eaten and ink blotted, and talk of the sermon, and walks along the whiskery avenues in the garden.
"And yet, in the town, in that year, there could be no avoidance of history, for the streets were full of her assaults and confusions." "Octavian Nothing" would well deserve the National Book Award it garnered for such beautiful prose as this alone, but Anderson does not waste his talent on mere verbal boondoggles. After Octavian joins the Continental Army the book becomes one of the most extended, passionate, and well-argued meditations on slavery in America, equality, liberty, and human rights that I have yet encountered.
In Anderson's formulation there can be no ignoring the devil's bargain which animated the American Revolution and the founding of the United States, no denying that the "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" for which the continentals fought and died was only promised to white men, and property-holders at that. In the camps Octavian's fellow soldiers, black and white, tell each other that "all shall be changed" and that they shall witness the unfurling of a new order of the ages, but it was not so. Even readers not previously unaware of our flawed ancestors' hypocrisy will be disturbed out of their complacency by this book, which is disturbing, and disturbingly relevant even in our own time.