November 27, 2010

Reading in Bed

 

The tooth isn’t so bad but the anaesthetic hangover is pretty extreme.  I slept like a dead thing last night (which is much to be preferred to not sleeping at all, of course) but having some experience of dental anaesthesia hangovers I thoughtfully set my kitchen-timer alarm to get me up this morning before the hellhounds’ bladders exploded.  When it went off I came gimping up to the surface like a wounded mole, peered out from under the duvet, several extra blankets and two enormous pillows*, blinked my tiny blind eyes at the terrible light** and wondered what planet I was on.  Earth?  Still?  I’d’ve sworn I’d reincarnated by now.  And it’s so COOOOOOLD.  Geez.  At this rate I’m going to turn the central heating on.  Such profligacy.   Usually the Aga can handle Hampshire winter, but when the hellhounds and I press ourselves against it till there is a faint charring smell and our outer surfaces are still cold, it may be time for drastic measures.  Barring the importunities of various bladders, including my own, I could just stay in bed . . . hey!  I have an idea!  We can all have a pee and go back to bed with a good book.*** 

            Ally Condie’s MATCHED is officially out the end of the month (according to the back of the ARC), but I’ve been seeing plugs and squees and rocketing sales for it for a little while now.  It’s another of these books I wasn’t going to like.  It’s dystopian.  Ugh.  I’m so over dystopias.  It’s told in present tense.  I continue to cling to my dislike of present tense narration, although there are getting to be kind of a lot of books that I’ve liked that are told in present tense.†  It’s chiefly a love story.  I like a little romance with my story;  when the love thing takes centre stage I get testy.  And this book has a clear moral.  Get away from me with that thing.

            In fact it’s subtle, perceptive and engrossing.  It’s told in this cool, simple, faux-naif voice (which fits the present-tense narration very well) by seventeen-year-old Cassia.  She has grown up in the perfect Society, where everyone (or perhaps almost everyone) is healthy and contented and has work to do that suits their abilities.  And, in this Society, when you are seventeen, you go to your Match Banquet, where you will meet your (perfect) mate, as perfectly chosen by the Society administration.  The book begins with Cassia, accompanied by her parents, her best friend Xander and his parents, going to the Match Banquet which will introduce both Cassia and Xander to their future spouses.  Cassia is nervous;  Xander is not.  You-the-reader may already be wondering about this Society, its arranged-marriage system and its curiously docile citizens.  Then there is this exchange between Xander and Cassia:

            ‘“How could you tell I was nervous?”

            ‘“Because you keep opening and closing that.”  Xander points to the golden object in my hands.  “I didn’t know you had an artifact.”  A few treasures from the past float around among us.  Though citizens of the Society are allowed one artifact each, they are hard to come by. . . . ’

            Citizens of the Society are allowed one artifact each?  Cassia’s precious object is a compact:  ‘“But look,” I tell [Xander], popping the compact open to show him the inside:  a little mirror, made of real glass, and a small hollow where the original owner once stored powder for her face, according to Grandfather.  Now, I use it to hold the three emergency tablets that everyone carries—one green, one blue, one red.’

            The three emergency tablets that everyone carries?  Okay, I’m pretty well hooked, and I’m only on page four.  The book is like this:  Condie smoothly feeds you the facts of Cassia’s life as they come up—and they come up steadily and appallingly—she slides a lot of the Society’s grotesque machinations over without Cassia ever noticing they’re grotesque, and you half don’t notice yourself which adds to the what??? when you do.  The force of the story is in Cassia slowly waking up to what we out here in this reality would call the horror of her situation:  ‘I’ve always wondered what my dreams look like on paper, in numbers.  Someone out there knows, but it isn’t me.  I pull the sleep tags from my skin, taking care not to tug too hard on the one behind my ear. . . . Glad that my turn is over, I put the equipment back in its box.  It’s [Cassia’s brother] Bram’s turn to be tagged tonight.’  What?  And I’ll leave you to discover for yourselves the ‘commissions to choose the hundred best of everything:  Hundred Songs, Hundred Paintings, Hundred Stories, Hundred Poems . . .’

            But something odd—something unprecedented, something un-Society-like—happens to Cassia.  At her Match Banquet she is Matched with Xander, her best friend.  This is rare enough;  most Matches have never met each other, never heard each other’s name, weren’t aware each other existed.  But it does happen, that Matches are known to each other.   But when Cassia reads the microcard the Society provides each person on their Match . . . for a moment the face that comes into view on the screen is not Xander’s.

            It is a boy named Ky Markham, whom Cassia also knows, although not well.  But when a Society official draws Cassia aside, apologises for the mistake, and gives her a new, perfect microcard containing only Xander’s face and information about Xander’s life, the official also tells her—to reassure her that the mistake was superficial only, that there was never any chance that Ky would have been her Match—that Ky will not be anyone’s match, because Ky is an Aberration.  Cassia is curiously distressed by this news.  And then she finds herself in a new hiking leisure-activity group (of course the Society monitors your leisure activities) with Ky, and begins to get to know him, and begins to wonder about a Society that would brand him an Aberration. . . .    

* * *

* These are a total necessity.   While it’s still dark, they block my over-the-road neighbour’s frelling security light which penetrates my feeble little curtain like an enchanted sword through the vitals of a miscreant.  Once it’s daylight they allow me to ignore people on the telephone wanting to offer me further unprecedented handbell opportunities;  upgrades on my iPhone package involving not only more minutes a month than there are minutes in a month, which I already have in my present package, but the chance to put my name down now for a real-time feed from the new space station they’re building around Rhea^, and if I die of old age first I can leave it to someone in my will;  and the Folio Society wanting me to resubscribe, which I have every intention of doing after it’s too late to qualify for their Christmas giveaways of large heavy books I don’t want but will feel a strange reluctance to give to Oxfam.  Said pillows also allow me not to hear brisk knocks on the door heralding the presence of meter readers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and frelling delivery persons who have been told 1,000,000,000 times to leave it behind the gate, you moron.  Pillows up to these arduous tasks are indeed so large and heavy I need three more support pillows to prevent my neck from breaking.

^ http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/nov/25/oxygen-saturn-moon-rhea

** And what is making that damned beeping noise?

*** Hellhounds like this plan.  It means they get to go to my bed.  Yes.  The one drawback to reading in bed in the winter (not that it stops me) is that one must have certain crucial body parts clear of the bedclothes with which to view and manipulate the book.  Well placed radiant hellhounds are of great benefit in these circumstances.  Totally worth all the hair they leave behind.

† I’m reading another one now, drat it, which will grace these virtual pages some day.

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