Correlation, Top Tens and Ally Condie’s Matched

3.24.11 | | 10 comments

Warning: this is less a review than a piece of literary criticism. There be small spoilers ahead.

It is probably not surprising that so many of the nationally-published, succesful YA novels by Mormon authors are about agency — Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, Dan Wells’ I Am Not A Serial Killler, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner. Not only is it a key component of Mormon theology, but it’s also really what YA is all about. One comes of age when one can learn to (or be freed to or free oneself to) make choices (and accept the consequences). But as intensely as the three titles I mention deal with agency, none of them are about it thematically as much as Ally Condie’s Matched. From the title, which refers to the fact that reproductive unions in Condie’s dystopia are arranged/assigned, and the front cover (which features a young woman in a bubble); to the back cover, which includes blurbs with words like free will, choice, rebellion and controlled; to, well, all all those pages in between this is a book about agency.

Condie intensifies the issue of agency by doing what all dystopias do: create a claustrophic, circumscribed, controlled society. A key component to that is the restriction of approved materials for consumption by the populace — or in other words: correlation. I use that term, of course, in the LDS sense to mean a system of education via approved materials that are consistent across the organziation (or in this case — the Society).

As we discover on page 29:

The almost-snow reminds me of a line from a poem we studied this year in Language and Literacy: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” It is one of my favorites of all the Hundred Poems, the ones our Society chose to keep, back when they decided our culture was too cluttered. They created commissions to choose the hundred best of everything: Hundred Songs, Hundred Paintings, Hundred Stories, Hundreds Poems. The rest were eliminated. Gone forever. For the best, the Society said, and everyone believed becuase it made sense. How can we appreciate anything fully when overhwelmed with too much?

Whatever you think about the characters and plot of the novel*, this bit of world-building is genius. Not oh-my-heck-I’ve-never-seen-this-before genius, but brilliant-execution-capturing-of-the-times genius. Condie bottles up all the hand-wringing over information overload, filters it through our (and by our I mean our society, but especially the culture created by Gen X) obsession with top 10 (or top 25 or top 100) lists and then labels it with the marks of correlation** that she has experienced as a post-Harold B. Lee Mormon.

And what’s fascinating about this to me and about my readerly reaction to the novel is not just that I find her transmutation of these elements of recent history captivating, but that these elements work both ways. Yes, this is a dystopia. But because of the way she combines the familiar elements, it’s hard to see the way society has configured itself in Matched as wholly bad — or rather, I can see the appeal. It would be nice, sometimes, if life could be correlated, and if there really was a list of the best of everything that actually was viable, that could actually lead to full appreciation (and, of course, here’s where lists and correlation always breaks down — because the determining the best as a discrete list is impossible, and it never can be the best for every single person and circumstance). ┬áThe cultural and educational aspects of the “Hundred” approved works are just the beginning of the dystopia in Matched — I haven’t even discussed the way social relationships, living spaces, work and physical health are regulated/shaped by the Society.

Of course, once you begin thinking about it in a very specific way — once you realize that the lists then lead to all other cultural products being destroyed — then the whole notion is completely horrifying. As it is meant to be. And, if one were a rather introspective reader, one would be tempted to then turn the dystopia, the Society back on to our own society and begin to wonder about both how we correlate and list as well as how we deal with the overload of information. I don’t know that Matched provides any amazing answers (although we really do need to see where it’s going with the rest of the novels), but in the way it dramatizes our messy, disjointed perhaps even schizophrenic relationship to cultural products totally works. And works in a way, that maybe, just maybe, is as effective as it is because Ally Condie is a Mormon. So at the risk of engaging in the sort of list-making the work itself decries, I nominate Matched for immediate inclusion in to the Mormon literature*** YA canon. And I look forward to far more sophisticated and in-depth literary criticism that treats the theme of agency in this and the other recent YA books by LDS authors.

*And my armchair reaction to Matched was that I enjoyed it quite a bit and that I’d take Ally Condie over Meyer and Dashner any day even if she doesn’t quite (yet) reach the heights of Wells or Hale.

**For our non-LDS readers. Correlation in a nutshell is the standardizing of materials to be used in teaching as well as the administration across all LDS congregations. It’s basically standardized curriculum and policies/procedures. Of course, most large organizations (and school districts) engage in the practice to some degree or another. But the LDS Church is, perhaps, particularly thorough and effective in its implementation of it.

***As you may know around here we use the Association for Mormon Letters definition of Mormon literature which is any narrative work that is by, for or about Mormons.

10 comments: “Correlation, Top Tens and Ally Condie’s Matched

  1. Wm Morris Post author

    So I know the armchair reaction in the first footnote is a little harsh or un-scholarly, but that’s what you get from me — both readerly unfiltered and critically filtered reactions. Point is: I liked the book.

  2. Theric Jepson

    .

    (typo in third-to-last word)

    I haven’t read Matched yet, but I do think you’ve hit upon a useful lens to examine MoLit in general and clearly this book in particular. I imagine I will read these at some point, but I rather expect I’ll wait until they’re all available. I don’t like long pauses midstory…..

  3. Angela H.

    Excellent post, Wm. One thing I really liked about the world Ally created in Matched is that readers *can* see why people would be drawn to living this way. The society isn’t a purposely cruel one like the dystopian society of The Hunger Games where large swaths of the population are subjugated and harmed for the benefit of those in power. Instead, the society’s leaders and citizens alike seem to agree that all this “correlation” (love this insight!) is for their good. Well, unless you’re an aberration, that is.

    I also agree that Matched is a very Mormon book, even though it says absolutely nothing about God. (Yet. Perhaps this is coming in sequels?) It’s so interesting to me that so many of these dystopian novels are societies where God is completely absent.

  4. Jonathan Langford

    Excellently suggestive piece, William. Clearly there’s a master’s thesis or dissertation, or AML paper, or at least a guest blog, out there waiting to be written about themes of agency in YA literature by Mormon authors…

  5. Lisa Torcasso Downing

    The only other YA book by a Mormon writer that struck me as distictively LDS was Brandon Mull’s first Fablehaven, which dealt thematically with the need for, if not blind, perhaps uneducated obedience. Other books in the series had less of an LDS flavor. But Matched seems to me more flavored by Mormonism. In addition, I’d say Matched is very well-crafted and sets up beautifully for more of the same. I never felt this way with the Twilight books. I always felt as if that author was making it up as she went. Condie is in control of her craft. Its an easy and quick read, btw. The language is simplistic, but quite nice.

  6. Wm Morris

    Okay pet peeve time: the language is simple — not simplistic. Simplistic means the the simpleness is reductive; it’s taking the complex and treating it in a way that is adolescent and poorly thought out.

    I’m of the opinion that when something is well-crafted (and I agree that the prose is transparent and unadorned) it can’t be simplistic. But I guess that’s because I’m of the school that simplistic is always a negative adjective.

    Of course, I feel the same way about verbiage — but people these days seem to use it as a positive or neutral rather than a negative noun. Where I come verbiage is always negative. It means that the writing is overly wordy. And if you really want to just say “how something is expressed in writing” you say: can you put together some wording/copy for such-and-such.

    Okay, rant over. Can you tell that I work with some people who use the words simplistic and verbiage without seeming to be aware of their primary, negative connotations?

  7. Mahonri Stewart

    I’ve been curious about the book–looks like I’ll definitely have to take a look at it now. I’ve been re-eading Fahrenheit 451 with my high school students, so it’ll fit right in with that school of thought.

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