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). The 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.