Thursday, October 25, 2012

Usage: Condie's Sisyphus


OK. Ally Condie didn't write her novel Matched for my demographic. And I felt a little self-conscious reading the book with its dustjacket on yesterday on the plane. By the time I turned page 100, though, I didn't mind the fact that I was reading a book where the narrator is a 17-year old girl who is experiencing the conflicts of love and infatuation and her first kiss and all that. If that's what this book were about, I couldn't have moved so far so fast.

I'm having a great read.

Joelle Keliiliki is the reason why I came to read the book in the first place. Joelle is writing a very good paper about an intriguing thematic usage of the Sisyphus myth that lies at the heart of Matched. Since I know the author and like Joelle's analysis of the usage, I went and bought the book and started in.

Without disclosing details of Condie's usage of the Sisyphus myth — that would undermine Joelle's work! — I will say that to my eye the mythological usage is sophisticated.

Condie develops one of her protagonist's most moving characteristics upon her reaction to Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night." It is a counter-cultural statement that has been repressed and accepted as illegal within the suffocating dictates of The Society where Cassia and Xander and Ky are trying to live. That world is not many years in our future.  Through effective social engineering, Society Officials have so effectively improved humanity's condition that no hardships need affect anyone, as long as they comply willingly. Raging, raging against the dying of the light will be futile. Cassia, though, is learning otherwise.

The situation is perfectly laid by this novelist, then, to introduce precisely mid-way through, a theme from classical mythology. Condie achieves it with masterful adeptness. Ky mis-tells the myth of Sisyphus. At least we can say that there are details in Ky's futuristic account that couldn't be found in Homer's or Alcaeus's. Still, the result is the same. There's a hill and a rock and an eternity of futility. "He went on pushing the rock to the top. He went on pushing forever." (Matched 235) But, the telling of the myth is foreshadowed by a mention of it several pages earlier. (187) Condie allows the reference to settle into the reader's conscious awareness and fertilize it for a few pages.

So, the situation set, Condie introduces into this tale of "raging against the dying of the light" the spectre of humanity's greatest Disgracers. Finding himself in the World of the Dead, Odysseus had no need to tell his audience what Sisyphus was doing there. (Hom. Od. 11.593-600) They all knew the myth already. We, however, can scarcely recall what Sisyphus did wrong. A young woman, like Cassia, needs to be told. We, too, need to know, because Ky's father was clearly Sisyphaean. Thus, Condie has Ky tell the tale. Coming from the mouth of an Aberration, the son of an outlaw, the tale of futile climbing toward light dawns with thematic significance.

Condie's narrative is a page-turner. I'm looking forward to my schedule's next clearing so that I can learn what happens when Ky and Cassia get tired of climbing that hill. I'm also eager to learn just how far Condie will work this intriguingly rich mythological simile.

Keep turnin'.

      Added 19 Oct 2013: Look at one of my follow-up postings from Dec 2012, click here.


  1. Thanks, mimicross, for reading the post. Hope you, too, have been able to enjoy Condie's books.