The cover of this year’s winner of the National Book Award for young-adult fiction, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume I: The Pox Party, shows a human head encased in a thick metal mask, which looks as sinister as its function: a method of punishment for rebellious slaves. The mask has slits for eyes, the shape of a nose, but no opening for a mouth. Instead, a cold iron bit prevents the slave from talking, and almost from breathing. When the bit is forced onto the book’s slave hero, Octavian, after he has run away and is recaptured, he recounts:
I screamed something—I cannot now recall what—as they swung down the bit and it struck my teeth and scraped the flesh of my mouth. The bit intruding, I was bent almost double with gagging, and could not get a breath. … I fell then to my knees; I fell upon the floor where my mother had fallen, sick with the fever; and I commenced to vomit through the mask, choking all the while on the dirty and acidic issue which clogged the mask and my mouth.
The description both echoes and inverts another one in the book: Octavian’s remembrance of his mother’s death from smallpox: “In the extremity of the disease, her features could not be recognized as hers. Her visage was an assemblage of holes, the nostrils flaring with each breath.”
These passages demonstrate the considerable skill of the author, M.T. Anderson, to evoke indelible images. But does that make the book they reside in a good one? The reviewers thought so. In addition to the National Book Award, Anderson’s book garnered accolades in places like the New York Times Book Review, the American Library Associations’ Booklist, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the literature blog The Mumpsimus. These various outlets billed Pox Party as “a striking advance,” “astounding,” and, oddly, given the grim subject matter, “exhilarating.” I hated this book. Since I seem to be in a minority of one, at least among adult commentators, I’ve been trying to figure out why.
A good book needs to do more than evoke horror, however deftly. It needs to use that horror to make us understand as well as feel—to bring us inside a character, to open up a corner of the psyche. That responsibility is arguably heightened for young-adult books, the often awkward category that’s meant to be read by teenagers but is often shelved in the children’s area of stores and libraries. Young-adult books are typically of more interest to preteen readers (or adults) than they are to teens. I remember foraging on the YA library shelves as an 11- and 12-year-old. And when I think of kids that age reading a story like Octavian’s, I want the horror they absorb to be more than creepy and mawkish. Pox Party failed that test for me. The voice of Octavian never broke free of its own metal casing. He remains disembodied—pitiable, no question, but too remote to actually pity.
Octavian is a black child of the Revolutionary War era. He and his mother live with a bunch of old white philosophers at what’s called the Novanglian College of Lucidity. Over the course of the first half of the book, Octavian realizes that his Latin tutorials and violin lessons are an experiment—the men want to see if an African child can develop intellectually the way a white child can. When the political uncertainties of the war crash over them, the scholars turn on Octavian and his mother, and the depth of their evil is exposed.
In his rave review on The Mumpsimus, Matthew Cheney wonders if Pox Party was sold as young-adult fiction simply because Anderson has written other YA books. That seems likely, for marketing reasons, but I wonder, too, if the YA handle doesn’t give an author greater license to brand a book around a message. Anderson says Pox Party is about “how we lead our lives, willing to let others suffer so that we can have our luxuries.” He adds that the same goes for his earlier book Feed, in which the teen hero rebels against a government-sponsored computer feed implanted straight into kids’ minds. The lesson of these books is subversive, but no less moralistic for being so. In Pox Party, Anderson slathers on the teachable moments by exploding the founding American myth. “Discuss the contradiction between the colonists’ propaganda decrying what they call their enslavement by the British government and the colonists’ ownership of slaves, some of whom they sent in their stead to fight the British,” the publisher’s discussion guide instructs.
Who isn’t for the explosion of founding myths, or for using books as the bombs? As Ann Brashares, author of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, wrote in a New York Times op-ed last year, “Reading is possibly the safest and best way for young adults to explore challenging, complicated subjects.” That’s true of sex, the subject Brashares had in mind. And it can also be true for slavery. To give Anderson his due, he writes about slavery and its repercussions during an earlier era than the classic YA titles that come to mind (Black Boy, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, Sula). But because of the frustrating vacancy of Octavian, his book is more graphic and horrifying than those books without being anywhere near as edifying. In these classics, the characters’ humanity is a retort to slavery’s efforts to dehumanize them. Pox Party falls far short of this mark. Anderson’s effort to portray the warping effect of Octavian’s upbringing takes over, and in keeping faith with the character’s diminished reality, he leaves us with a narrator who is less vivid and real. Which means that his book may disturb kids without provoking them in the ways Anderson, and the publishing guide, intended.
That’s not to say YA books must avoid unpleasant topics for fear of harming their impressionable audience. When I was 11 or so, I went on a Holocaust reading tear. I read some good books and some bad books, and I didn’t much care about the difference. What drove my reading was a desire to force myself to think about unspeakable, awful things that I would never have to live through, and to see if I could stand it. I remember this reading as bingelike: I stayed up late racing through page after page. Would I have been better off without those books at that moment? For sure I would have had fewer nightmares. And now that I’m a parent, that’s what I wish for my own children. On the other hand, I pursued my Holocaust obsession because it felt like my own, and it was in my power to moderate it. Kids “can read one word a minute or one thousand and stuff it under the pillow if it gets too much,” Bashares says of YA reading. “They supply the pictures in their own minds; no one else’s are forced upon them.”
So, I’m not going to start pulling Pox Party from the library YA shelves. Instead I’m content to rely on the kids to spare themselves. That seems safe enough because of another feature of Anderson’s writing—its difficulty. Pox Party is replete with too-good-for-the-SAT vocabulary words and painstaking historical accuracy. (In the author’s note, Anderson goes so far as to regret an anachronistic reference to “tricorne” hats. Thanks.) The intricate and windy 18th-century prose should suffice to ensure that any 12- or 16-year-old who reads this book is a 12- or 16-year-old who really, really wanted to. The adult raves aside, I wonder how many of them there are. Pox Party bears all the worthy marks of a book that makes adults swoon and kids roll their eyes.