Note: this post contains spoilers for Matched, but not for the other two books in Ally Condie’s trilogy.
In my first reaction to Ally Condie’s Matched, the first book in the Matched trilogy, I noted that the worldbuilding she creates for cultural products in the Society plays on our current worries about media/information overload and obsession with listmaking and also reflects her experience as a Mormon who grew up in the era of correlated materials in the LDS Church. I want to discuss how this actually plays out in the novel and what it says about the teenage experience.
In Chapter 3 we learn about The 100. Cassia, the main character, explains that the Society had committees who picked out the best 100 songs, paintings, stories and poems. The did this because “culture was too cluttered” and no one can “appreciate anything fully when overwhelmed with too much” (29). Having 100 works of art across four major forms still leaves a lot of works to study in a school setting. But what does it mean for leisure time?
It means that, as we discover in Chapter 9, when teenagers in the Society get together to hang out, there’s not a lot to do. The chapter opens with:
“None of the showings are new,” our friend Sera complains. “They’ve been the same for the past two months.” Saturday night again: the same conversation as the week before. (84)
The irony, of course, is that teenagers in our era of overload still run into that same problem–sometimes to the consternation of their parents who can’t imagine how there couldn’t be anything for them to do (while at the same time realizing that there are a lot of worse things they could be doing). But here the restlessness of a Saturday night is all the more understandable because the options are so limited:
“It’s better than the other two choices,” Em says. “Isn’t it?” She glances over at me, waiting for my opinion. I nod. The choices are the same as usual: game center, showing, music. (29)
Back in chapter 5, we discover that Cassia and her friends generally like to spend their time in the game center because games are more social and active, but there had been an unpleasant experience the last time they had been there so they decide on a showing. Music is out of the question because, as Cassia explains:
“Most youth aren’t crazy about sitting with a few other people in the hall and listening to the Hundred Songs piped in from some other place…” (85).
Of course they aren’t. Music for teenagers isn’t about the meditative experience of appreciating the complexity of the familiar: it’s about novelty, expressing individual preference, and channeling the emotions of desire, rage, melancholy and heartbreak. Above all, music is about the new, and it’s clear that Condie’s teenagers–just like all teeenagers–crave the new, which is why they choose to go to a showing on this particular night. “We never miss showings when they’re new” (85), Cassia notes. Showings in the Society are what they sound like: cinema. But, of course, cinema in the grand tradition of dystopias: pieces of propaganda masquerading as history and news. We learn from Cassia that they only make new ones every several months.
The current showing is one they’ve all seen numerous times, except for Ky Markham. Ky has recently moved in with his aunt and uncle. He comes from the Outer Provinces. He is (as only Cassia knows, and only knows because he was mistakenly shown to her as her Match) an Aberration. Ky received that status because of something his father did and as such he will not be allowed to Match (marry and produce children). Cassia is surprised to discover his reaction to the opening shot of this particular showing, which begins as a long aerial shot that starts at the ocean and then flies over the coast, the mountains, the farmlands, and then across each City of the Society. It takes a while to play out and the whole time Ky’s “eyes are wide and he has forgotten to keep his face still and calm. Instead, it is alight with wonder” (89). It is clear he has never experience something like this before, and he seems to be reacting less to the propaganda aspects than to the simple technique of it (the symbolism here will become important in Reached).
After the dramatic opening shot, the showing covers the same ground as other showings have: it’s an origin story that shows how things were before the Society and how the Society changed all of that for the better. Cassia keeps glancing at Ky. He doesn’t react at all to this section. But then the end comes:
At the end, the showing takes us back to how things were before the Society. How things would be again if the Society fell. I don’t know what set they have used for this, but it is almost laughable. They have gone over the top with the dramatic, barren redlands; the shabby little houses; the few sullen, hard, sad-looking actors walking around the dangerous almost, empty streets. (90)
The existence portrayed is so far from their experience that the teenagers experience it as un-real; the artifice of filmmaking comes to the fore. And when aircraft come and attack the actors, a scene that is clearly meant by the filmmakers to be dramatic and message-laden, the teenagers react like teenagers do:
The scene is overdone. It’s ludicrous, especially after the quiet scene at Grandfather’s that I witnessed on Sunday. This isn’t what death looks like. One of the actors falls to the ground dramatically. Garish red bloodstains cover his clothing. I hear Xander give a little snort of laughter next to me, and I know he feels the same way I do. (90)
Cassia’s Grandfather’s death was a clinical, ritualized euthenasia. It’s the only death that she and her friends know. And they only know cinema as propaganda so they experience it only as something new to do and as something carefully produced, at times “overdone”. In their protective bubble of the Society with its correlated, narrow range of experience, dramatic art (and granted this is poorly done dramatic art) can’t reach them. Teenagers are often like that whether living in the confines of the Society or not. Or at least they pretend to be that way. The calm, still face that screams out you can throw whatever you want at me, but I’m not going to show vunerability.
But Ky has a different life experience. Cassia turns to Ky to “share the joke”.
He is crying. Without a sound. (90)
And how does Cassia react?
I am not used to seeing someone suffer. I turn away. (91)
But, of course, she also wants to know if Ky noticed her noticing him crying (she can’t tell, of course). And she is further intrigued by him because his reactions to the showing are different from that of her and her friends.
Chapter 9 of Matched is a skillful exercise in worldbuilding and character development that also furthers the love triangle and foreshadows much of what is to come in the rest of the series. But it’s also interesting for what it suggests about art. Ky comes to the showing with fresh eyes and a grittier, non-sheltered experience of life and because of that, even though the work is overdone, it affects him deeply.
As we will find out later, a real work of art, a piece of non-propaganda, will have a major affect on both him and Cassia.
How we experience art, especially as a teenager, is highly dependent on what we bring with us to the experience and how open we are to it. Even in a highly correlated environment, art (even bad art) can still reach us (even if we are teenagers), but at the same time, the danger of a highly correlated environment, especially for teenagers, is that it doesn’t provide either the works of art or the life experiences for us to come to experience the art with the depth of feeling and vulnerability that we need in order to experience it deeply so that it can change us and enrich our intellectual and emotional (and spiritual) selves.
FTC Disclosure: I received a free set of the Matched trilogy from BYU Studies for a review I wrote for them. I assume they received the copies from the publisher because the final book in the trilogy came in ARC form.