Thursday, January 24, 2013

Rescuing Ourselves: Ally Condie's Matched Trilogy

"The two desires struggle within me: the desire to be safe, and the desire to know. I cannot tell which one will win."

In an attempt to enter into and better understand the storiesworldviews, and messages shaping my kids and the rest of today's youth, I submit the latest review of trending books, films, and TV shows effecting a primarily YA audience: Ally Condie's Matched series.
Disney has already purchased the rights, and foreign rights have been sold to over thirty countries.  The books went as high as #2 on the New York Times bestseller list, and they have received good reviews from readers and critics.
 My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at how the story reflects and shapes  the readers' worldview.

There will be spoilers.

The Story

The Matched trilogy begins as Cassia is preparing for her Match Banquet, an event at which she will meet the husband Society has chosen for her. In Ally Condie's dystopic future, Society runs everything: jobs, meals, education, marriage, schedule, exercise, entertainment, social class, even death. It's the only way to achieve optimal results.
After the Warming, most people voted to give the government invasive control of their lives so they would be safe.  As the physician Oker points out, "That might be Society's greatest triumph - that so many of us ever believed we were."
But when Cassia gets matched with her best friend Xander - and then finds out she was also matched with  Ky -  she realizes that something is amiss in this Orwellian world.
Suddenly, she is introduced to a world of choices she never knew existed. Society was supposed to decide whom she should love, but now she is torn between Xander and Ky. She never had a choice of any significance before, let alone one of this magnitude. Now she is faced with her first real dilemma in a world that had always decided for her.

"With Xander, I would be able to do the things I always thought I would. But with Ky, I do things I never thought I could. I want both. But that's impossible."
Welcome to teenage angst, Cassia. Thanks to Ky, Cassia begins to discover poems, stories and music which spark her imagination and rebellion. Ky shows her not only how to write, but also how to imagine, wonder, and yearn to be free.  She increasingly wants to fight against this stifling societal control, to (as an often quoted Dylan Thomas poem encourages), "rage against the dying of the light."
    "Once you want something, everything changes. Now I want everything. More and more and more. I want to pick my work position. Marry who I chose. Eat pie for breakfast and run down a real street instead of on a  tracker. Go fast when I want and slow when I want. Decide which poems I want to read and what words I want to write. There is so much that I want. I feel it so much that I am water, a river of want, pooled in the shape of a girl named Cassia."
When Society sends Ky to the Outer Provinces, this pool in the shape of a girl flows after him.  His banishment is a death sentence; Cassia's pursuit is noble but probably futile. Their only hope is the Rising, an underground rebel movement led by the legendary Pilot. If there is any hope, it will be found by joining the fight.
When they finally join the Resistance, they discover the Society has already been thoroughly infiltrated - but so has the Resistance.  As the rebellion topples Society's government in the midst of a devastating plague, the lines between revolution and establishment become increasingly murky.  Both sides have a lot of red on their ledger, and it might be hard to wipe away. 
The Pilot continually reassures them: "The Society is sick, and we have the cure." But there is more than one kind of sickness, and they only have one kind of cure.  Once the plague has been resolved, who will cure the societal sickness that remains in the human heart?

Though the author has written a lot of Mormon YA lit, but she has stated that  "there is no religion in Cassia's world." True, none of the cities or communities have religious rituals, and some of the main characters are agnostic or atheist.  However, unlike the Hunger Games, there are plenty of nods to the part of our nature that believes there is more to reality than the material world.
  • "You can almost always see the sky. And what's beyond that, I wonder? And after this?" asks Cassia's grandfather.  When he is politely told to enjoy his final banquet - his last meal before he is euthenized -  Cassia notes that "there is a wry twist to Grandfather's mouth as he says 'Thank you,' as though he knows something they don't."
  • Ky says, "I don't know what happens after we die. It doesn't seem to me like there can be much past this. But I suppose I can conceive that what we make and do can last beyond us. Maybe in a different place, on another plane."
  • When Leyna is talking to Xandar, she tells him of her plans to to go the Otherlands. Xandar does not believe they exist, partly because no one has ever returned. Leyna responds, "People like you see that as evidence that the Otherlands aren't real. People like me see it as evidence that it's a place so wonderful no one would ever want to come back."   
Of the recent YA series I've read, this one has perhaps the strongest portrayal of family (though Veronica Roth's Insurgent runs a close second).  Cassia lovers her parents, Ky mourns the loss of his, and the situations in which adults bring orphans into their family are moving. This is a series in which parents - both surrogate and otherwise -  are part of the solution, not the problem.
Cassia longs to recreate what she saw modeled in her home:
"I think of Xander. We could have been happy....I could have held his hand, warm and strong, and we could have had what my parents have, and it would have been beautiful."
When she discovers how pervasively Society has manipulated marriages, she momentarily panics:
"If the system is wrong and false and unreal, what about the love between my parents? If their love was born because of the Society, can it still be real and good and right? I want the answer to be yes. That their love is true. I want it to have beauty and reality independent of anything else."
In a poignant scene that captures the longing of one lonely daughter, Lei offers her final words to Xander as she is about to succumb to the Plague:
     "I was hoping to see [my father] again before this happened," [Lei] says.
     I almost say I'm here. But looking at her I know that it's not going to be enough, because I'm not who she wants. I've seen someone else look at me this way before. Not through me, exactly, but beyond to someone else.
     "I was hoping," she said, "that he'd find me."
A world of longing is captured in that one brief sentence.  We live in a country where fathers are increasingly absent.  A teenage friend recently told me that she has dreams in which she and her father share the laughter and love he does not give her in her waking moments. How many daughters want to be "found" by a father who does not know they are dying inside?

In contrast to most dystpoic literature, the Society is not all bad. The control is oppressive, but happiness, health, and peace. There is some humanity that seeps through. As Cassia notes, "The Society isn't human, but the people who work for it sometimes are."  That's a good point. It's easy to write a story in which the bad group is just rotten to the core. It's much more difficult to show a society that is well-intentioned but oppressive; capable of bringing peace but incapable of bringing joy; good at keeping people safe but not at making them strong; good at sorting and categorizing but not at flourishing.
Perhaps Cassia's inner turmoil about how she should feel about Society is what helps her find a flaw in the rhetoric of the Resistance: "If the Rising works, what happens next? That's the part they don't often talk about. They say everyone will have more freedom...but that's about all they say." 
There is an interesting trend in current YA lit: the rebels are not necessarily as good as we think. (See my review of the Hunger Games, Bitterblue, Insurgent and Divergent).
For that matter, freedom of choice is not necessarily a pristine blessing in a land of light and happiness. Choices are hard. They impact the world in ways we don't always understand. As Xander and Cassia try to talk their way through Cassia's love-torn heart, Cassia comes up with a line you might read on a break-up card: "In the end you can't always choose what to keep. You can only choose how to let it go." Xander, however, knows what it feels like to be on the receiving end: "Do you know what it's like for someone to choose to leave you?"  
This series intrigues me.  It manages to show the beauty of imagination and choice while simultaneously applauding the safety that come with organization and control.  A lack of freedom limits our ability to explore our life in its fullness, but a lack of order compromises our safety.

Ms. Condie understands the importance of character and integrity. We are not merely what we hope we are, or what we do in public. We form our identity by our choices seen and unseen. When Ky decides to take a young boy with him when he makes his escape from the Outer Provinces, another boy challenges him:
"Why keep him around? Why bring him along?"
"There's a girl I know back in Oria," I say. "He reminds me of her brother."
"That's not reason enough."
"It is for me," I say.
Silence stretches between us.
"You're getting weak," Vick says finally. "And that might kill you. Might mean you never see her again."
"If I don't look out for him, "I tell Vick, "I'd be someone she didn't know, even if she did see me again."
When Cassia is faced with a tough choice, she knows what is at stake:
"It's hard to cross over," I tell him, my voice breaking.
"Cross over where?" he asks.
"To who I need to be," I tell him.

There is a lot to like about this series. Mrs. Condie honors family, tradition, integrity, imagination, creativity, loyalty, bravery, friendship, commitment... It's quite a list. I do find it interesting, however, that when she writes a story without religion, she also writes a story that is quite bleak. Close to the end of the series, Cassia concludes:
"But I also know we can't plan on anyone else rescuing us. We have to do it ourselves. There can be no one Pilot. We have to be strong enough to go without the belief that someone can sweep down and save us."
It's all up to us.  We must save ourselves.  That sounds noble, but the story's conclusion shows the barren hope that humanity has to offer. In the end, the Rising will become the society, much like the rebellion in The Hunger Games.  Sure, Ky and Cassia have each other, but there love is one small candle in an sweeping darkness.  It may warm their hearts, but not the world.  Perhaps Mrs. Condie knows she has an audience that doesn't expect a "happily ever after" ending.
After Cassia's father dies, she notes:
"Writing, painting, singing - it cannot stop everything. Cannot halt death in its tracks. But perhaps it can make the pause between death's footsteps sound a look and feel beautiful, can make the space of waiting a place where you can linger without as much fear. For we are all walking each other to our deaths, and the journey there between footsteps makes up our lives."
It was an unexpectedly bleak ending to an otherwise solid series. I recommend Ms. Condie's literarly world for all the positive reasons I listed above - but I do so with a sigh, knowing that thousands of teens who read this could use a story with a hope that is bigger than their boyfriend or girlfriend.

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