If I were pitching Pam Bachorz’ Candor at an editorial meeting, I’d call it “dystopian contemporary YA meets The Stepford Wives with a dash of Wisteria Lane from a male perspective”.
Oscar Banks is cookie-cutter perfect. He’s a straight A student, is dating the prettiest, smartest girl in Candor High, and has more friends than a parrot at a pirate convention. He also has a secret – he’s the only one who knows about the “messages”–subliminal commands coded into the elevator music that floods every house, street, and store in town–and his father’s attempt to turn Candor into the ideal small American town. Armed with carefully created messages of his own, Oscar runs his own underground railroad, shuttling the richest kids out of Candor before the messages can take hold. Enter Nia Silva, a black-clad skateboarding artist–and the girl Oscar can’t stop thinking about. How can he save her, when saving means letting go?
Candor’s great strength is its use of the here and now. Bachorz’ take on a subliminally-controlled-small-town-Florida is, perhaps, a little too realistic. The town’s perfection is a clever honey-trap: messages such as “the great are never late” and “respectful space in every place” pepper the book, keeping Oscar and other teens in check. But the book’s structure is such that the plot-driving secrets are apparent from the get-go. Moreover, as soon as Nia, the story’s love interest and damsel in distress skateboards on to the scene, the band-aid’s off. The rest of the story becomes almost immediately apparent: boy tries to save girl, girl refuses, boy tries again, girl gets sucked in, boy saves her. While the ending is not quite so neat as my summary, it’s not too far off.
Of course, Candor can be forgiven for its plot’s not too subtle twists–many books are actually stronger for following an obvious course. Think of Austen’s classic, Pride and Prejudice–from the moment Miss Bennet meets Mr. Darcy, the reader knows they’ll end up professing undying love in a matter of pages. Even the title makes it obvious. And that, of course, leads to the ultimate conversation between author and reader:
Reader: Oh, they are so going to get it on.
Austen: Yes, madam, I know I have made it abundantly clear Miss Bennet and Mr. Darcy shall wed.
Reader: But how? And why? Why would she even look at him? He called her ugly!
Austen: If you truly wish to find out, I suppose you shall just have to read the book.
While Bachorz’ attempt at drawing us into the hows, whys, and whens of the outcome isn’t as smooth as Austen’s, it’s still compelling. Her style is strong, and heavy on the imagery. And while I’m not usually drawn to novels written in first person present tense, it lends immediacy to the story, helping us to focus still more on the story’s questions, while drawing attention away from the ending. Oscar’s concern for Nia never wavers, and Bachorz does an excellent job of reinforcing his motivation without banging on about it. In terms of straight writing skill and style, the book is the debut every writer wants: cool but not slick, well-written but not flowery.
Yet Candor isn’t all sweetness and light (or whatever the dystopian equivalent would be). Some sections feel forced; after the climax, the pacing becomes wobbly, and the tension trickles away, making the last scene between Oscar and Nia weaker than it could be. Some of Oscar’s lines are off: “her smile looks tasty and right” was corny enough to make me want to slap him and snap, “She’s a girl, not a bowl of cornflakes!”
Bachorz’ story is also very single-minded: we focus only on Oscar and his relationships. Her treatment, or better, dissection of Oscar’s relationship with his father, Campbell, is wonderfully apt, and Bachorz uses the absence of Oscar’s mother and brother to great effect. Yet, this single-character treatment means there are no real subplots in the book–every aspect of the story feeds back into Oscar’s, leaving the world incomplete. True, a carefully controlled small town peopled by carefully controlled families doesn’t exactly need Orion slave girls or Daleks to push the story along (although subliminally-messaging Daleks could end in awesome). But the book’s supporting cast–Mandy, the bossy beauty queen and Sherman, Oscar’s fat, mommy’s boy client–react to Candor’s influence too. In fact, Mandy’s not-quite realization of the town’s purpose, and her attempt to play it, is one of the most interesting parts of the book. The lack of subplots is somewhat ameliorated by Bachorz’ supplementary material–as part of her promotion, she’s produced a dedicated in-story Candor website, complete with podcasts and other related content.
Most irritating, though, is Bachorz’ treatment of women. Nia, for all her spunk, is a damsel in distress. And Oscar’s reluctance to tell her the truth “because he doesn’t want to lose her” only reinforces the idea: by not giving her a choice, he pigeonholes her, and, worse, tricks her into being his girlfriend. At no point does Nia take real action for herself–her emancipation hinges on Oscar. Her personality doesn’t change, and she lacks character growth–in short, Nia is an object, a means to an end–someone for Oscar to attach to, to drive his story forward. Likewise, Mandy is a foil for Nia, though her story is even worse–Oscar’s actions end in her being forced to date whiny rich kid Sherman, with little remorse on either Sherman or Oscar’s part. And while it’s possible Bachorz’ intent was to demonstrate, again, the deeper power of the messages, the story reads otherwise.
Despite its obvious riffing on other dystopias, Candor’s grounding in reality–subliminal messaging is a real and powerful thing–lends the story a certain creepiness other YA dystopias are lacking (Yes, Uglies, Pretties, Specials I’m looking at you). Its shortcomings, while frustrating, were not enough to keep me from finishing the book and appreciating the ending. And Bachorz’ strong, clear writing is definitely worth the time. I’ll be keeping an eye out for her next novel.