Brooklyn Arden Reviews: Two Modern National Epics

This weekend I took in two epics of national creation and definition, spaced a hundred and sixty years apart in time and a good distance farther than that in the mentalities that created them; but each demonstrating a genius of sorts for its particular genre and style, and each recommended for the right frame of mind. I am writing these reviews late at night, and I'm going to do them rather stream-of-consciousness, with very long sentences; so please forgive any errors in style or fact, as I'm writing them for the mere pleasure of making them exist at all. And spoilers ahoy!

So, first, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Part I: The Pox Party, by M. T. Anderson. This volume wae the National Book Award winner for 2006, but I had -- not avoided it exactly, but never made time to read it, until the recent CCBC discussion and Times review of Volume II prompted me to pick it up. More out of a sense of duty than anticipated pleasure: for while I very much admired M. T. Anderson's Feed (the only previous novel of his I'd read), and I knew from that and from reviews of Octavian that he could accomplish extraordinary feats of voice, emotion, imagination, and historical recreation, his temperament and view of humanity seemed rather darker and harsher than mine, almost on the verge of nihilism. And it is always hard for me as a quasi-optimist to read pessimistic works -- not only are the events described unpleasant, and realer than I daily care to look at, I feel like something of a fool as I read, for this, the pessimists are telling me, is reality, and why don't I just face that fact and get on with it? Additionally, I'd read so much about Octavian at this point that I felt it was approaching the category of books that the first chapter of If on a winter's night a traveler would call The Books One Never Needs to Read Because So Many People Talk about Them That It Seems Like You've Read Them Already.

So I took up Octavian knowing most of its big surprises -- the nature of the experiment, that he would at some point lapse into inkblots, the eventual escape. And at first I read with attention mostly for the undeniable genius of the thing -- the deep knowledge of history and science, the construction of the voice, the fascination of the situation. (Not to mention the incredible feat of copyediting this book must have been, to get the ampersands and the spellings and the historical references right and consistent.) And that awareness of genius was so strong, and the events described so deeply inhumane (to Octavian; all too humanlike in other ways) and yet true, that I found myself reading more with aesthetic pleasure than emotional pleasure -- that is, I took pleasure in the excellent aesthetics of the book, but I had no pleasure being with Octavian inside the world created by those aesthetics. About halfway through, I would have liked to stop reading.

And yet I could not, Mr. Anderson's aesthetic genius having caught me up in caring about Octavian and made his world sufficiently real that I had to see how the experiment played itself out. If readers usually identify with main characters and have the pleasure of sharing in their experience, the experience and pleasure here felt like that of martyrdom: intense pain and also nobility, the one increasing the other. But once I gave myself over to that and accepted it, about the time of the Pox Party, I found some pleasure in sharing Octavian's burden, like we had to go through these awful things together. And more than that, I realized that I had misjudged Mr. Anderson, because anyone who feels such sympathy for the suffering (as I think he must to portray suffering so accurately and acutely) cannot be a nihilist: because in nihilism nothing matters, and he clearly feels that human suffering does, and should be alleviated. That does not mean it WILL be in the course of the book, of course, but it's nice to have something to believe in as a reader, and not feel like the author is simply leading you toward fictional misery and pointlessness (the better to underline the misery and pointlessness of actual existence).

So, oddly cheered, I flew through the last third of the novel, marveling still at the brilliance of the historical writing and the turnabout of the usual patriotic story; and hoping now, hard, for Octavian to escape and all to be -- if not well, or even peaceful (which would be foolish in a novel chronicling the beginning of the Revolutionary War), more resolute still in favor of this sense of the possible goodness of humanity. And while I understand Volume II will test this hope even further, I look forward to getting and reading it after I return to New York. All of the best novels I've read this year have been YA: Paper Towns, Graceling, Suite Scarlett, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, The Hunger Games, the Attolia trilogy; and now I will set Octavian Nothing among that company, as, if not the most pleasurable, certainly the most distinguished in imaginative and historical accomplishment.

(It strikes me that this is less a review than an account of my reading experience with random, very possibly pretentious-sounding philosophical bits thrown in. Ah well, I'm enjoying writing the bloviation, and I hope you don't mind reading it.)

Australia. Baz Luhrmann pulls various pieces of his country's mythology and history -- the colonization by the English, the incredible beauty of the Outback, the romantic independence of the stockmen, the shame of the Aborigines' treatment by the whites -- into an ungainly film that, despite the history and the setting, is still much more a Baz Luhrmann movie than it is an Australian one. By which I mean: Baz Luhrmann loves drama and the dramatic arts, loves good production design, and loves Love above all, and all of these things are in their usual massive profusion here -- Australia just happens to be the latest backdrop for his inquiries. Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) travels from England to her late husband's cattle station in the Outback, where she meets "the Drover," a cattleman played by Hugh Jackman, and a half-white, half-Aborigine boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters), who might at any time be taken away for reeducation as a white at the hands of the Australian authorities. Lady Sarah's husband was killed by the overseer of a rival cattle station, a man named Neil Fletcher (Bryan Brown), who tries to blame it on Nullah's wholly Aboriginal grandfather. In the first half of the movie, Lady Sarah bonds variously with Nullah, with Australia, and with the Drover as they drive the cattle from the station to Darwin in 1939. In the second half, set in 1941, she wrestles with the implications of Nullah's race -- his desire to go walkabout, the authorities' capturing him -- as the Japanese approach and eventually attack Darwin.

That all sounds much too serious, though. Luhrmann gives the film a frantic opening much like those of Moulin Rouge! or Romeo + Juliet -- he's so eager to get to the meat of the romance that he rushes us through the introductions to his characters, making them look ridiculous, to early unfortunate effect. But as in those previous films, once those lovers are onstage and working together, he calms down -- overindulging his fondness for the closeup, perhaps, but developing the story at a more logical pace, and unfolding several glorious romantic set pieces. Here he also displays a strong hand for action sequences (which, I guess, aren't so different from dance numbers), particularly in a cattle stampede about a third of the way in.

Still, the most prominent feature of the film is his unabashed sentimentality -- and more than that, his reveling in it, in the long shots of Lady Sarah and the Drover embracing against a gorgeous Australian sunset. The Aborigines are all magical, moral beings in touch with the earth (though, to be fair, this is probably true, certainly compared with the white colonizers). Someone says something like, "As long as we have love, everything will be all right." We never learn the Drover's real name; indeed, the film never even acknowledges the idea he has a real name, or the silliness of his being always "the Drover," as that might taint his mythic stature. And here is a one-line summary of the climax: a noble Englishwoman hears her adopted half-Aborigine son playing "Somewhere over the Rainbow" on a dead man's harmonica as her horseman-lover pilots a boat full of other half-Aborigine children through a bay filled with burning debris after an attack by the Japanese.

So Australia is melodramatic and ridiculous. But it is also, if you're willing to wait through the opening and shut up the realistic side of your brain, quite, quite delicious -- gorgeous production design, gorgeous scenes of the Outback, gorgeous Hugh Jackman (though I kept hoping he would break out in song). If any Australians read this, I would be curious to know what the reaction has been Down Under to the film. And for Americans, I recommend it as a highly enjoyable evening at the movie theatre, especially as it's an epic not our own.