If you’ve read 1984 or Brave New World, you know how the story goes: an elite few guide the trousered apes, making the world a better place for everyone. And (mostly) the apes like it. They get pleasure without worries, someone to take care of them physically, mentally, and spiritually—they get Francis Schaeffer’s “personal peace and affluence.” Unlike most dystopian fiction, however, in Pam Bachorz’s debut YA, Candor, the target apes are teenagers, checked into paradise by their parents.
Everything is perfect in the town of Candor, Florida. Teens respect their elders, do their chores, and enjoy homework ... because they’re controlled by subliminal messages. Only Oscar, the son of the town’s founder, knows how to get kids out—for a price. But when Nia moves into town, Oscar is smitten. He can’t stand to see her changed. Now he must decide to help Nia escape Candor and lose her forever, or keep her close and risk exposure.
A dystopian novel usually means meaty ideas: freewill ... inherent evil ... greatest good. But most of the time, it doesn’t answer questions, only raises them. It’s up to readers to draw conclusions. Problem is, in this relativistic society, the conclusions are limitless. And you know what they say ... when all the answers are right, none of them are.
Before I get carried away with content, a look at form: Ms. Bachorz writes a believable, average-teen-male voice. This includes a fair amount of physical obsession when it comes to girls, fyi.
She does a great job with character motivation—why does Oscar’s dad want to turn kids into cheerful zombies? Because his own firstborn, Oscar’s brother, was killed in a freak accident, doing a stupid teenage stunt. In Mr. Banks’ grief-stricken mind, being good is the best safety net.
And finally, Ms. Bachorz keeps you turning pages. Halfway through, I was asking, Will Oscar stay? Or will he leave?
Also, seriously nice cover.
But form is nothing without content, so back to the issues Candor raises.
“Aural addiction.” Without messages, “the withdrawal will kill you.” Realize that no matter who you are, where you are, you’re processing outside messages.
“Who was I supposed to hate more? The one who asked for it? Or the one who gave it to him?” The masses for accepting direction, or the elite for directing? We’re not innocent victims, here.
“...two players, loaded with the right Messages.” But who’s to say Oscar’s messages are right, and his father’s are wrong? Where there is no ultimate standard, it’s my word against yours.
“Make me like the rest of them,” pleads one boy who has temporarily escaped the Messages. “Take away everything else.” This goes back to personal peace and affluence, our modern absolute values/idols, and society’s most likely kamikaze candidates. Meet my needs, I don’t care what you take, just meet them. Boom.
But the ultimate point of fiction is to take questions raised in story and use them to examine the world we live in. So let me prod a couple of sweet lies with the toe of my boot—two ideas, straight from Ms. Bachorz’s text. They’re not the “messages” she is asking us to question, however. They’re part of the real world’s “truth.”
“I wish I was strong enough to do what I want all the time.”
“It’s always safest to trust yourself.”
What—sound fine to you?
That’s what I was afraid of.
“Sometimes it’s nice to do what the messages say. It’s like sinking into a warm bath, eyes shut, arms floating, and letting the water cover my face. I don’t have to breathe until someone tells me to.”
ARC courtesy of Egmont USA (and a fairy-godmother-ish Pam Bachorz!) September 2009