Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Review: Ally Condie's Matched

It’s an especial pleasure to dive into a book that has been the subject of intense thought. When an author has really considered all the angles and intimately knows the inner worlds of her characters, it shows. This quality, to me, is what elevates Matched above standard dystopian fare. Though the pieces are familiar and the genre is bloated, Ally Condie has transcended the trite with a nuanced, engaging story relayed in beautiful prose.

The title refers to the ceremony in which a teenaged member of The Society is assigned a mate. (Ominous capital letters are a dystopian hallmark.) The pairing is impersonal and scientific, a completely regulated process. Every other important life decision—what to eat, what job to do, what to do with free time—is calculated in a similar way. We, as modern readers in a free-thinking society, are trained to shudder at words like “impersonal” and “scientific,” but in some respects, The Society doesn’t seem so bad. 

Matched is what I would call a “seductive dystopian.” Of course, a savvy reader knows that utopian societies are always false, but it seems pretty nice there. I bet no one in The Society has ever worried about their weight. They’ve never had their heart broken, never agonized over a text. They’ve never had to write a single cover letter or wonder what to do with their life. They don’t waste time. There’s no cancer, no violence, no other way. Worry and frustration are eliminated because uncertainty is off the table. (Citizens may be anxious about the big events, but after the outcome is announced, they know exactly what is necessary.) Science has proven that their given path is the best and most effective way. 

No one wants to live in the excess of Panem or the oppressive squalor of District 12. Meg Murray sees pretty quickly that Camazotz is a scary place. (Only now do I realize that this can be read as “comatose” with a long “o”.) Because there is so much good in The Society, it takes some time until the full picture is pieced together. (The moment when that happens for Cassia is so well done. The sense of disillusionment, of seeing beyond infallibility, mimics the same process teenagers go through with their parents.) Like in The Giver, the realization comes slowly, the creeping horror of a discovering a world where there’s no color. (In The Giver, it’s literal. Here, it’s metaphorical.) 

What caught me in particular about Cassia’s world was the idea of “The Hundred.” Only 100 of the “best” songs, poems, and paintings are available for public consumption. (I’m not sure if Condie was thinking about this at the time, but I saw echoes of the Voyager’s Golden Record, which I always found fascinating. What do you send/save? What would I send/save?) Since Matched is set in Earth’s dystopian future, some of the cultural references are familiar. For instance, Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is preserved but not his “The Road Not Taken.” With that one detail, Condie lets us know the list was censored and sanitized, optimized for control and conformity. So smart!

Creation beyond these works is not nurtured. In fact, it’s actively discouraged. No one in The Society knows how to write beyond typing in their tablets. (Ahem, Apple.) New movies are simple propaganda films. Since literacy, democracy of knowledge, and censorship are pet issues of mine, I was totally invested in these details. (The burning of books puts a fire in my belly.) Even small instances of creation and curiosity are taken away. If you don’t cook your own food, you never ask how things are grown or where they came from. You also never get to cook for someone.

In a highly regulated society, relationships and choice—the messy entanglements of life and the hard decisions that lead to personal growth—are what is sacrificed. When everything is calibrated, the possibility of beauty and the sublime, of intense pleasure in things that are not useful, is lost. However, many varieties of love and loyalty can blossom in a controlled environment. Ties to family, friends, and community are still very real. People in the book give the minutes of their lives to each other, as Cassia poetically notes. (I do love these characters and wish I had more space to talk about them.) Big choices may be taken out of their hands, but the thousands of little choices still define who they are.

I think the next book in the series (Crossed) will ramp up the discussion of free will and choice. I’m already counting the days until November.

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