- Reading 9/11 from the American Revolution to US Annexation of the Moon:M. T. Anderson’s Feed and Octavian Nothing
In early September 2001, M. T. Anderson had a partially completed young adult novel on his hard drive. The story was set in a fairly distant future—with technological advances allowing the installation of sophisticated Internet capabilities directly into the human body—but the setting was eminently recognizable. American teenagers tracked trends in entertainment and fashion, fell in and out of love, and alternately displayed apathy toward and alienation from the local and global politics that shaped their world. The novel’s opening line captures the tenor of its economically privileged but selfishly provincial characters: "We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck" (3). In the period between that early draft and the novel’s October 2002 publication, the World Trade Center collapsed. The after-effects of September 11 became Feed’s backdrop, making the teenagers inhabiting Anderson’s setting—the United States in its "final days" (297)—a means to focalize the trauma of the 9/11 moment.
Four years later, Anderson published The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party. In 2006, the War on Terror raged and homeland security policies were in full effect. In many minds, the United States now figured as perpetrator rather than prey.1 For Anderson, this prompted a shift in setting and genre: instead of writing a dystopian novel set in the future, he wrote a historical novel set in the American past. Octavian Nothing features an African boy who lives with his mother amid a community of academicians in Revolutionary Boston. Unbeknownst to him, Octavian—who has been told that he is an African prince—is both a slave and the subject of a scientific experiment to determine the intellectual capacity of Homo afri. As the nation’s founding documents are penned, Octavian discovers first-hand the contradictions of a battle cry for "liberty and property." Ostensibly a novel about the American Revolution, Octavian Nothing and its desecrated protagonist document the trauma induced by the War on Terror.
Together, Feed and Octavian Nothing alternately anticipate and mourn the state of US affairs today, articulating a politically progressive [End Page 197] nostalgia in the process. Even as they recognize that the national past—the United States at both its birth and its late twentieth-century apex—was far from utopian, they point to its utopian aspirations. Teenage protagonists are central to this task. In literature written for adults, the sentimental child often serves as a means to focalize society’s collective effort to process trauma; as the most vulnerable and innocent member of society, the child enables readers to see the full extent of the damage enacted. The role of the teenage protagonist, however, is more complex; citing classics ranging from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Little Women, Roberta Trites has argued that "American adolescent literature is replete with adolescents whose rebellions are linked to social critique" (Twain ix).2 Unlike child protagonists who are subjected to societal tragedy, teenage protagonists are not passive vessels evoking sympathy. Instead, they are citizens-in-the-making whose response to catastrophe—whether displays of apathy, anger, or political action—is understood to have real import. The state of youthful idealism, particularly in the United States, a nation mythically defined by its youth, doubles as a measure of the nation’s resiliency and health in moments of crisis.
Neither Feed nor Octavian Nothing is set in New York during the first decade of the twenty-first century, but they are unquestionably 9/11 novels, and the fate of their teenage protagonists speaks to the state of the Union in 9/11’s aftermath. The books’ central characters, Octavian and his young mother Cassiopeia and Titus and his girlfriend Violet, experience trauma bodily. The narrators, moreover, suffer regular co-option of their tales; again and again, foreign voices intrude on the teenage protagonists’ storytelling, rendering Octavian and Titus either mute or a mouthpiece. In using first-person narration and linking teenage rebellion to social change, the novels...