Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist
Copyright 2006
Other Press - Fiction/Dystopian
(Originally published in Sweden)
268 pages

That night I dreamed of Jock. We were on the beach. It was autumn and windy. The clouds were sailing across the sky like fluffy ships. Between them the sun stretched out its golden arms to us, glowing, dazzling, warming, suddenly disappearing behind a racing cloud ship, popping out again and just managing to lay its warm hands on my head before disappearing once more. The sea was roaring and hissing. We were running along the beach. I stopped. The wind nipped at my cheeks with ice-cold teeth, tugged at my hair. Jock was capering and dancing around me, barking and looking up at me with those brown eyes. He was happy, playful.

The Unit is a dystopian, possibly futuristic novel (but not far in the future, near as I can tell -- it has a contemporary feel) about a woman named Dorrit who has turned 50 years old and become "dispensable". I assume the novel takes place in author Ninni Holmqvist's home country, Sweden. Wherever Dorrit lives, though, the country enacted laws, years back, which led to classification of citizens as either "needed" or "dispensable". Dorrit has never married, never had a child. Her family is not dependent upon her and her job is not considered significant. She's had an affair with a married man, but he was not interested in leaving his family to save her from becoming dispensable.

Dorrit's birthday marks the end of her life in the outside world. She has given her beloved dog, Jock, to a loving new family and packed her few necessary items. Her house will be sold by the government.
Dorrit is taken to the Second Reserve Bank Unit, a locked, domed environment where she can use the exercise facilities, take classes, paint, shop, enjoy the beautiful winter garden and eat for free. Everything is provided, including health care. What she cannot do is leave. She can't even step outside the dome and will never again see the sky or feel the change of seasons. Her job, like that of the others, is to take part in human experiments and donate various body parts . . . until the final donation takes her life. But, then something happens that might change matters. Can a person declared "dispensable" return to life outside?

I read about 75 pages of The Unit and it made me so gloomy that I set it aside for a while, then flipped toward the end to get an idea of what was going to happen and returned to finish it. The writing is good, very fluid and extremely emotional. It's a translation and I have no complaints about the translation, which I think is well done. But, it's such a horrifying story.

Thought-provoking as the idea is that people might become walking organ banks, it's unfortunately just a little too fathomable and I found it profoundly depressing. Still, The Unit is a good book -- definitely worth discussing. Since I flipped near the end (something I do when I'm concerned that I'll hate an ending), I had an idea about the plot twist without knowing how the ending would turn out. To be honest, the more I ponder the ending, the more it pisses me off. I could understand it, in a way, but it just seemed totally wrong. But, then, the whole concept is morally wrong, isn't it? I think that's part of the point. The rest of the point may be that far too many people are marginalized and their lives considered somehow less valuable by society. The author's particular focus is on single, childless women. Men, in Dorrit's world, are not considered dispensable until they reach the age of 60.

The one thing that really bugged me about this book was the fact that there was not enough description of the outside setting. All through the book I kept wondering if there was any option to escape. Could Dorrit have gone to Canada (where I personally want to go, right about now, since we're under a heat advisory) or some other country to escape her fate? Or, was the entire world locking up people who were considered useless to society? That, I thought, was a critical missing piece in the book. There's really no mention whether there were options to avoid being locked up in the dome in the first place, apart from finding a way to become "needed", although as the book progresses and people in the outer world become frantic, it appears that the situation may eventually change. Once inside the dome, suicide is impossible -- that much is explained.

Still, you have to wonder why anyone at all would pack a bag and willingly climb into a vehicle to be taken such a place. Perhaps that's another good discussion point: Is it truly possible that anyone could feel so undervalued that donating organs to "needed" people might become, in his or her mind, a worthy possibility? Would one have to be suicidal not to try to find a way to avoid entering the domed world? If so, why not just jump off a nice, tall bridge? I'm just thinking with my fingertips, here. I do think this would be an excellent discussion book.

3.5/5 - Above average. Thought-provoking story, nicely translated writing but I needed a little more of a glimmer of hope, deeper description of the world outside and a little more explanation as to why one couldn't or wouldn't run or hide while still in the outside world. It does have a bit of a Logan's Run feel, but at least with Logan's Run, you knew what happened to people who tried to escape. There is some graphic sex, so this one gets a family-unfriendly warning.

What ho! I see there's going to be another Logan's Run movie, coming out in 2010. Here's the question: Can anyone beat that funky 70's version with Michael York and Jenny Agutter? I'm quite fond of the old movie and I love, love, love the final scene, when they emerge into the outside world. That was filmed at a fountain in Fort Worth, Texas, in case you didn't know.

I am not going to complain about the heat. I am not going to complain about the heat. But, I need to think cool, so here's a nice little picture of a friendly fellow kayaking near a glacier in Alaska:


Ah, I feel better now. He has a coat on!! There was ice floating in the water! If he had an ice-cream bar in that empty hand, it wouldn't have instantly melted! Nice thoughts. On that note, I'm off to stick my head in the freezer. Stay cool!

26 comments:

  1. I hope to read this soon. I hope it doesn't make me too gloomy since I'm at the magical age of 50.

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  2. I've been looking forward to reading this book because I really like dystopian fiction. I'm still going to give it a try.

    I love Logan's Run BTW. My parents let me watch a lot of strange films as a young child, and that's one of them. (Maybe watching all of those strange films caused my love of dystopian fiction.) I'll be curious to see if the remake is any good.

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  3. Kathy,

    You know, I didn't even think about how close I am to 50 while I was reading the book, although I did feel a little too firmly planted in Dorrit's shoes for comfort. I think I was kind of peeved at her for letting herself end up in the unit in the first place. LOL

    Alyce,

    I wouldn't dissuade anyone from reading the book. I survived it and I'm a sensitive chick. I think it's really a fascinating, thought-provoking read. It's not my favorite dystopian novel, but it's a good one.

    I love Logan's Run, too. In fact, after I wrote this post I thought, "I want to watch Logan's Run!" I own a copy. But, since we have no den at the moment and there's extra furniture blocking the thingy that houses most of our DVDs (actually, it's a dresser -- we have drawers full of DVDs), it's not where I can get to it. Since I couldn't get to it, I watched Star Trek IV, instead. I love that movie and it actually has a very relevant line. Spock's mother asks him if the good of the many outweighs the good of the one. I thought, "Oh, wow, that's exactly what that society had decided in The Unit." Individuals were worth sparing for the many lives they'd save.

    Wild, eh?

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  4. You've just described me... except I could make the argument that my job is necessary, couldn't I?

    Logan's Run was a great movie and given what they do with remakes these days, I'm not hopeful. They completely ruined The Day The Earth Stood Still.

    cjh

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  5. Wow, I really enjoyed the review for this and want to read it, but I think I'll save it for a particularly sunshiney day. I've the shivers just from you writing about it.

    -Connie

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  6. CJ,

    I know; it's really a statement about the value of human life. You're obviously needed to keep society in order.

    I think there are ways Logan's Run could be improved upon, but I so agree with you. The modern interpretation of futuristic societies is one thing I really dislike in remakes. I like the old minimalist approach with all the clean lines. One of the few things that really bugged me about the new Star Trek movie was the settings -- pipes everywhere, clutter, clutter. I loved the thought that in the future we'll have less. It's a nice thought and more visually pleasing.

    I especially think that because I live in clutter, I suppose.

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  7. Connie,

    I think that's a very good idea. Save it for when you're feeling cheerful and maybe keep the anti-depressants handy.

    And, thanks. That sounds like a huge compliment. So, I won't tell you about my nightmare because it was really, really creepy and I've already freaked you out. LOL

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  8. Sounds like this would have been a wonderful book to read with my sci-fi/fantasy book group (we had so many problems coming up with sci-fi books that this would have counted as one), back when I was part of one. It's probably too depressing for me to read just for myself, but it was books like this that made the best discussion fodder in the group.

    Some of the issues you had with this book might possibly be due to cultural differences. I'm not sure how one's individual value is viewed in Sweden, but it wouldn't surprise me if there were a country somewhere where individual value is determined primarily by what the individual accomplishes for others. In Holmqvist's world, it sounds like "primarily" has just become "totally," so that people like Dorrit are only "needed" because their parts can help others.

    Yes, I definitely have the feeling that this would have been one of those books that a few members in the discussion group would have loved and that the rest would have hated. The discussion would have been so much fun. :) I really need to figure out how to set up a functional book discussion group in which each member of the group is reading a different book - it's the only way it'd work with the libraries around here, and I've heard it can be done, but I'm sure it won't be easy.

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  9. The reviews I've seen of The Unit all make me think of The Handmaid's Tale (just in general). Did you get that feeling from the book at all, or am I way off base?

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  10. I am going to try NOT to sug this for book club today since I'm not the person allowed to suggest - if you know what I mean. I think I'm likely to be that bossy person at meetings... But this sounds like a good book to discuss.
    I'll let you complain about the heat and I'd even ask to please send us some! This NE rain,rain,rain,&gloom is getting to be too much.

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  11. The dystopian genre has really enticed me, so I only breezed over your review because I hope to read this one. I don't have it, so the chances of that being soon are slim, but nonetheless, I don't want to know too much.

    I have to say I gasped at your "flipping toward the end," but I'm glad that it helped you to finish. :)

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  12. Your is the first review I've read about this book that isn't completely glowing - and I think that's a good thing. You bring up a couple of really good points, but I have to say, I'm still interested in reading this. Great review!

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  13. I think I'll pass on this one. Just doesn't sound like my kind of book but glad I read your review. My stack of books are calling to me. Hopefully today will be a day to read. lol

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  14. I'd love to discuss this with you because I had real questions about the ending as well. I think the most shocking thing about the book is the complacency everyone seems to have about being taken to the Unit. Why do they simply accept their fate?

    -Amy
    (Life by Candlelight)

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  15. This immediately reminded me of a book I read ten years ago, by a Christian author, called Winterflight. The entire right to life versus right to die debate is poignantly captured within the book's pages, and while it was written in 1981, and set in a not-"too"-distant future, it is still timely today... and much too close to today's ideology for comfort. It is sad and depressing, but well worth the read.

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  16. This one looks intriguing, but potentially depressing to me. I'm in that 'closing in on 50 group.

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  17. A Library Girl,

    I think The Unit would make an excellent discussion book -- probably better than just reading it on your own because there is definitely plenty to talk about. Not surprising that you had trouble finding books to discuss. There just isn't enough good sci-fi available, in my humble opinion. It's an under-rated, under-published genre.

    I have no idea as to the cultural issue comment, although I do think single, childless women often feel undervalued, even in the U.S.

    That sounds a little strange -- a book group where everyone reads a different book. What would people discuss?

    Softdrink,

    I haven't read The Handmaid's Tale, yet, but from what I've read about it, I'd guess there are some similarities. Sorry I can't say for sure, since I haven't read it. There are men in The Unit, they're just older, so it's not entirely about discrimination against women who don't have children or other dependents, although that's a part of it. It's also about the value of human life in general.

    Care,

    LOL! I'm just sitting here imagining you with your book group, insisting on reading . . . whatever. I'll bet you're not that bad. You're just enthusiastic about books you want to read. :)

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  18. Care,

    Forgot to say . . . still willing to switch weather with you. :) We're only 92 degrees and overcast, at the moment, but the heat index is 108. Yeeurgh.

    Joy,

    I do that, too. I'm always concerned that someone will post a spoiler, so if I'm going to read a book right away (I'm forgetful enough that I go ahead and read reviews if I'm just considering) I won't read any reviews, just in case. Now that I've written my review, I need to go see what others have said.

    Flipping toward the end is a taboo to some people, but I sometimes consider it a necessity. I'd rather be forewarned about what's going to happen, if it's bad, than read all the way through a book and get a nasty surprise.

    Tara,

    Good! It's not my intent to put anyone off; The Unit is a good book. It just left me with some questions. I really do think it would be an excellent discussion book because of those questions.

    Thank you! :)

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  19. Krista,

    I think you're probably right -- especially at this point, it's probably not the best book for you. I don't want to say why, though, because that would be a spoiler.

    Amy,

    Oh, yes, let's discuss. Do you have my email? I don't even know if you're still in AN2R -- you haven't said anything since before baby arrived. That was one of my points -- why did people simply give in and go to The Unit in the first place? It made no sense to me that there was no talk of ways to attempt to avoid even entering. I kind of mentally related it to Nazi Germany; there ought to have been some people who ran and others who hid them. I thought that much clashed with reason.

    Gakkuri,

    I'll have to look up Winterflight. Thanks for mentioning it. The right to die isn't addressed, really (although people have the option to rush their "final donation" if desired) but that's a hot-button topic for me. My mother and I used to argue about whether or not it was a sin to die peacefully at a time of your own choosing, if you're terminally ill. I don't understand why we call it "humane" putting an ill cat or dog to sleep but people don't have that option in the U.S. (except in Oregon). My mother believed it's God's decision when human life should end.

    She wasn't so convinced her way was the right way, though, during that last couple of weeks of her life when she was in agony.

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  20. SuziQ,

    Yep, me too. Gettin' old. Amy mentioned this in a comment above, but it was not so much the idea of calling a person "dispensable" at a specific age so much as the thought that those who entered The Unit did so without a fight that bothered me, although the whole idea is absolutely hideous and . . . yeah, the book's pretty depressing. It's just so, so sad.

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  21. Oh good idea, let's escape to Alaska! We've been in the 100s and it's just so draining.

    Anyway, the book sounds really good to me. I have it but just haven't gotten to it. I figure I'd probably find it depressing too but I'm so curious about it. Thank you for such a great review.

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  22. It's been hot here as well 90+ for about a week. I'm a 80 and under type of gal!

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  23. Iliana,

    I could definitely go for a trip to Alaska, right now. The heat is miserable, isn't it? I think people have finally given up on hiding from it and are out running their errands, now -- the line in the P.O. went all the way to the door, yesterday -- but there's no sign it's going to end, any time soon.

    Not everyone seems to find The Unit as depressing as I did. I read a few reviews, yesterday. Some were really glowing. I hope you enjoy it. :)

    3M,

    Same here. Under 80 is good. Over 80 and I start to get grumpy. I'm grumpy a major portion of the year. I need to move north.

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  24. Your review really intrigues me. I love me a good dystopian book every now and again, although I read The Road recently and it was enough for quite a while :-) But your review definitely got me interested in revisiting that genre.

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  25. Kim,

    Me, too. I love to toss a dystopian novel into the mix, now and then. I've heard The Road is really depressing. Seems like one to wait on reading for a few months, although I do want to read it at some point.

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  26. I'll be reading this one soon. It does sound a bit depressing and thought-provoking. I'm glad to hear the author's writing is good. Thanks for the review!

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

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