January 24, 2009
Mega-Recommendation: M. T. Anderson
There are recommendations, and then there are recommendations. I am about to deploy the most powerful recommendation I can muster. This is my Trident missile of recommendations. This is my Mario bouncing star power-up of recommendations.
I discovered a short stack of copies of M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing on the floor in a hidden corner of Green Apple Books many months ago. They were steeply discounted, so I guess the truth is that they were trying to get rid of them, but in retrospect, having read this book, it feels more like I stumbled onto secret treasure. Say the password, make the right hand-sign, and the clerk directs you to the hidden cache.
Octavian Nothing is a story set against the backdrop of the American Revolution, but forget everything you know about stories set against the backdrop of the American Revolution, because M. T. Anderson makes it all strange and new again. I won’t give you the big plot summary here; you can find that on Amazon or Powell’s.
What you should know is that the voice of the narrator is completely infectious, that the book is incredibly presented (it play-acts at being a bundle of documents from the 18th century), and, most of all, that the story communicates, more than any book or movie I’ve ever encountered, more even than HBO’s John Adams, the contingency of the time. Anderson renders the Revolution as a crazy, dangerous scheme that is almost certainly going to fail. It’s thrilling.
So, okay, fine. Fun, smart book set against the American Revolution. But before you read Octavian Nothing (or the sequel, just published recently), you gotta read Feed.
Anderson wrote it before Octavian Nothing, and I like it even better:
People were really excited when they first came out with feeds. It was all da da da, this big educational thing, da da da, your child will have the advantage, encyclopedias at their fingertips, closer than their fingertips, etc. That’s one of the great things about the feed — that you can be supersmart without ever working. Everyone is supersmart now. You can look things up automatic, like science and history, like if you want to know which battles of the Civil War George Washington fought in and shit.
It’s more now, it’s not so much about the educational stuff but more regarding the fact that everything that goes on, goes on on the feed. All of the feedcasts and the instant news, that’s on there, so there’s all the entertainment I was missing without the feed, like the girls were all missing their favorite feedcast, this show called Oh? Wow! Thing!, which has all these kids like us who do stuff but get all pouty, which is what the girls go crazy for, the poutiness.
Okay, so you get what kind of book this is. Set in a dystopian near-future, it’s a total riff on the media madness that surrounds us today.
But no number of clever blockquotes can convey how incredibly Anderson conjures the attitudes and argot (oh, the argot) of his teenage characters. Now can they convey how unconventional this book is — in its merciless satire, in its determination to stay dark (and real) when it would be sooo easy and satisfying to get light and let characters off the hook and wrap things up with a bow. No bows in Feed.
And, oh, just wait ‘til you read about the lesions.
Feed isn’t about technology; in fact, the characters barely understand how it works. They barely understand anything about the world around them. Instead, it’s about ways of thinking, and ways of living. If the story just stayed at the level of sharp satire, I wouldn’t be recommending it. But that’s only a springboard to something much deeper — something deeply moral, I think.
Feed starts with this line —
We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.
— and it ends up breaking your heart.