August 2009

Jacob Silverman


The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

A dystopian story often features a rebel with the potential to destroy the status quo or to report its brutalities to the ignorant outside world. Some, like Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451 or the eponymous protagonist of Logan's Run, are part of the system but later turn against it; others, such as John the Savage in Brave New World, represent a more natural, humane existence that the ruling civilization would hope to suppress, turn, or kill. This archetype is not a vital feature of the dystopian genre, but it does recur, and so the question when considering The Unit, the debut novel by Swedish writer Ninni Holmqvist, is: will Dorrit Weger become a rebel, and what form will her revolution take?

When Weger turns 50, she is a lower middle-class Swedish writer, living in a dilapidated house that, despite its condition, she is proud to call her own. Because she is single, childless, and relatively unsuccessful, she has been classified as "dispensable," and she is sent, like all 50-year-old female dispensables and their aged 60 male counterparts, to the Second Reserve Bank Unit for Biological Material. There they are provided with housing, sumptuous food, entertainment, exercise facilities, perfect weather, gardens, and much else, all for free. But the Unit's residents are also constantly surveilled, and they must submit to medical experiments and periodic organ and tissue donation, the inevitable ending for all being a "final donation" that may come whenever the need arises -- unless you request it first.

In the world of The Unit, because of laws mandating compulsory daycare and equal time with each parent, the professional obstacles to child rearing have been removed. Consequently, "there is no longer any excuse not to have children. Nor is there any longer an excuse not to work when you have children." But Dorrit is -- in part because of attitudes impressed upon her by her mother -- deeply independent, someone for whom "it was strictly taboo to be, or even to dream of being, emotionally or financially dependent on anyone" or to be in a "symbiotic relationship," though she feels drawn to that sort of life all the same. With her 50th birthday approaching, she pleads with the man with whom she's been having an affair to become her partner, but he rejects her, and the consequences of her aloneness appear in the form an SUV to take her away.

How did we get to this point where people have become "human capital?" A nagging problem with this book is that Dorrit, as narrator, provides little illumination on how a society could so callously devote itself to profit and cast aside its undesirables. The clear implication is that this is a commentary on capitalism: this is what happens when the profit motive drives all and every problem has a clear solution. Yet only a handful of the novel's 270-odd pages discusses Sweden's lurch towards a dystopian planned economy, and we learn nothing about what the "community" thinks of this policy, save a couple comments from unusually generous Unit employees. That would be fine if the novel's present action were more self-contained, like the hermetically secured place in which Dorrit is imprisoned, but in its core concerns -- What makes someone useful or necessary to society? How do our children define who we are as people and citizens? Are freedom and love compatible? Is this government's policy acceptable knowing that "a single brain-dead body can save the lives of up to eight people?" -- The Unit constantly refers to the outside world. It is difficult then to suspend disbelief when the unit's existence does not correlate with the condition of the community outside, even by this world's perverted logic.

Ignoring these gaps, there is a beguiling spell at work here. Dorrit is an intriguing figure, admirable in her independence, maturity, and capacity for a self-defined form of love, though her claim to be apolitical seems more like a convenient excuse for the lack of exposition about the society around her. (Frustratingly and inexplicably, no one, even the dispensables, seems to protest the policy at play here.) With other female members of the Unit, she forms a closely bonded group that struggles to forget their imprisonment and indulge in the opportunities -- such as they are -- presented by their facility. They eat well, enjoy culture, create art, exercise for hours, and take care of one another in times of need. For a while she establishes friendships in this group that she never had in the outside world. She even comes to see the Unit as "significantly more humane than I could have imagined" and, in a clever twist, accepts the omnipresent surveillance as like "the old days, when religion had a clear place within daily life, and people were convinced that God was keeping a constant, watchful eye on them." It is this provisional happiness that allows her to fall in love with Johannes, another writer and dispensable.

The Johannes-Dorrit relationship is Holmqvist in full stride. It is convincing, passionate, well-described and also serves the purpose of challenging Dorrit's feelings about being in the Unit. Once content to be led, she is now troubled about the malevolent sores on the bodies of women in the locker room and the changes wrought upon her friend by an experiment with male hormones. She also begins to appreciate what loss is, pining for aspects of her old life and witnessing other couples broken apart as one member goes silently to his final donation.

At this point, it is clear there is a revolution coming, though it may be a failed or internal one, but love, true, authentic, selfless love, is changing Dorrit, and afterwards she cannot be the same. So too is the love of her friends changing her, as is the knowledge that they are being slowly taken away, dismembered piece-by-piece, parts taken to heal someone deemed essential. Seeing a friend half-deaf and struggling to breathe after undergoing several brutalizing experiments, the fašade of dignity quickly dissolves.

It would be a good lesson for our politicians to learn that just because we can do something does not mean we should, nor can we always be prepared for the consequences, as The Unit strives to illustrate. It is also reckless and cold-blooded to pursue prosperity at all costs, a notion equally understand by Bhutan's policy of Gross National Happiness and by the writer Edward Abbey, who wrote that "growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." Dorrit, never fully understanding this, still longs for a more compassionate way of being:

I wish I lived in a time when people still believed in the heart. When people still believed that the heart was the central organ, containing all the memories, emotions, capabilities, defects and other qualities that make us into specific individuals. I longed to go back to an age of ignorance, before the heart lost its status and was reduced to just one of a number of vital but replaceable organs.

Her choices after this declaration determine what kind of a person she will be in the limited time she has to live. But for all her intelligence, kindness, and elegant articulation of feelings, Dorrit, like her vaguely drawn countrymen, is mired in the na´ve malaise of someone who too passively accepts things as they are.


The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist
Other Press
ISBN: 1590513134
272 Pages

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