Profile: Author M.T. Anderson Challenges Young Adults With Complex Narratives

M. T. Anderson doesn't mince words in his latest novel, a two-volume work of more than 900 pages.
M. T. Anderson doesn't mince words in his latest novel, a two-volume work of more than 900 pages. (By Mary Beth Meehan For The Washington Post)
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By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 29, 2008

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.

M.T.Anderson is defending the intelligence of teenagers, and he's getting quite worked up about it.

"It's insulting to believe that teens should have a different kind of book than an adult should," says the author of "Feed" and, most recently, "The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation." Teens like challenges, he says. They know the world is complicated, and "they can tell when a book is simplifying life."

And hey: "If we're going to ask our kids at age 18 to go off to war and die for their country, I don't see any problem with asking them at age 16 to think about what that might mean."

Anderson's attitude helps explain "Octavian Nothing," an ultra-challenging, two-volume young-adult novel that runs 900-plus pages and asks teen readers to contemplate the American Revolution from a wildly unfamiliar point of view. In case that's not challenging enough, he wrote it in "the particularly complex form of 18th-century English" that its title character would have used.

The first volume won a National Book Award in 2006. The second was published last month to further acclaim.

"I believe 'Octavian Nothing' will someday be recognized as a novel of the first rank, the kind of monumental work Italo Calvino called 'encyclopedic' in the way it sweeps up history into a comprehensive and deeply textured pattern," wrote an awed reviewer for the New York Times, tossing in references to Twain, Hawthorne and Melville for good measure.

Not bad for a guy whose first published book was a suburban vampire novel and whose second centered on teen love and fast food.

At 40, Anderson is technically a grown-up, but bring his hairline forward just a shade and he could pass for the hand-waving brainiac in your AP history class. Wearing a gray T-shirt and a three-day beard, he's chowing down in a distinctly non-scruffy Cambridge restaurant while trying to describe how his epic narrative took shape.

Octavian Nothing is an African American youth whose circumstances, as the first volume begins, could scarcely be more unusual.

He has fallen in with a peculiar group of Boston scientist-philosophers known as the Novanglian College of Lucidity. The Novanglians "devoted themselves to divining the secrets of the universe," as the young man writes in the journal that forms much of Anderson's novel. One of the secrets they're trying to divine -- by experimenting on Octavian -- is "whether the capacities of the African are equal to those of the European." To this end, they bestow upon him an elite education in the arts, sciences and classical languages.

Which would be paradise, except that his scholarly benefactors have neglected to mention that they own him.


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