Saturday, December 29, 2012

Sisyphus' motives, Condie's Reached

Ally Condie's Matched Trilogy obtained its third element last month, with the publication of Reached. An earlier post on this blog found me sort of apologizing for liking so much a novel that features a 17-year-old female protagonist. But, I like Matched and then Crossed so much that I don't apologize for my excitement over reading Reached along with Condie's national fan-base. The novelist's marvelous usage of the Sisyphus myth has brought me back again and, now, again.


The new novel's two-page prologue, "The Story of the Pilot," foregrounds the Sisyphus myth even more centrally than its usage in the trilogy's two earlier installments. "A man pushed a rock up a hill," it opens. The story of the Pilot narrates briefly a dialogue between the man and a curious child. "I am making something," says the Sisyphus figure. And, although the child doesn't first fully understand the meaning of the man's stated purpose, she soon understands than in fact his incessant rolling of the stone has resulted in a particular creation: "The child saw that the man had been right."

Readers of Crossed, the second installment, knew already from the start that the river that marked the wilderness was named after Sisyphus. That much detail had capped the first novel, Matched, and the myth of Sisyphus had played in that novel's narrative since we first learned about Ky's father's dissidence. So, when the trilogy's third novel opens with allusion to Sisyphus, there is no surprise.

What is exciting is Condie's brilliant contribution to the Sisyphus tradition, the imputation of motive to Sisyphus' timeless, epic punishment. Nowhere before, I believe, has the Sisyphean torture actually made something.

Homer's Odysseus, of course, sees Sisyphus in the world of the dead, Book 11, along with the great disgracers from classical myth. If Odysseus knew why Sisyphus was there, rolling and re-rolling the massive boulder, he didn't tell Alcinous. Rather, Homer only says that the exercise occurred; and the emphasis in the narrative is as much on the rock's incessant return to the plain of its origin.

Reasons why Sisyphus was required to push the rock are variously given in classical sources. Pherecydes wrote that Zeus punished him for revealing to Aegina's father that Zeus had abducted the girl. Hyginus states that Sisyphus seduced his niece, Tyro, out of fraternal spite toward her father; the impiety resulted in his eternal punishment.

I'll admit that in October, while reading Matched, I was hoping that Condie was working with the Sisyphus tradition that, classically, makes the disgracer a cunning trickster who gains the upper hand on Death himself and kept all mortals from dying until Ares liberated Death (Thanatos) and forced Sisyphus into Death's thralldom. The tragedians all seem to have known this myth. And I was wondering whether Condie's Cassia and her grandfather were "guilty" of recalcitrant cheating death against the Society's policy-driven timing of individuals' mortality.

I determined that I was wrong, that Condie was not working with that aspect of Sisyphean recalcitrance. But, I might be proved wrong when I dig into the third novel.

Crossed overtly uses the Sisyphus myth. Indeed, we learn in that novel that Sisyphean persistence had eventually worn a deep trough into the mountainside where his punishment occurred. The Sisyphus River was carved by the timeless rolling of the rock.

Since Homer crafted his epic in the 8th Century BC, the emphasis in Sisyphean narratives has always, I think, been on the futility of the effort. What's exciting me now about this narrative is that Ally Condie has imagined for me a situation where Sisyphus consciously engaged the boulder for purposeful creation.

More will follow.

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