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The Unit ()

Like Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, The Unit is a dystopian novel of ideas by someone who hasn't quite thought those ideas through. In the Sweden of the near future, childless women of fifty and men of sixty are declared dispensable and shipped to units, rather pleasant facilities where they live out their remaining days as subjects of medical experimentation and involuntary organ donors. Indeed, the setting is so comfortable that when the novel's central character, Dorrit Weger, is sent to the Second Reserve Bank Unit she has no trouble adjusting and almost no objection to what's happening to her. And given that she makes several good friends there and finds the love of her life, whereas all she left behind was a dog, it could easily be argued that her life has improved as a result of the relocation. In fact, the people gathered together in the unit seem fully human--integrated into a society--for the first time. That's obviously a serious problem for a book that presumably wants us to find the concept of the units objectionable.

Likewise problematic is the author's desire to use her conceit as a critique of the way capitalism objectifies human beings, and to make us consider socialism as a more humane alternative. For one thing, the reason the failure to bear children matters so much in places like Sweden is that someone has to pay for the Welfare State. Folks like Weger who fail to replace themselves are a burden on the system and on the dwindling younger taxpayers in particular. And, not coincidentally, it is in precisely these socialist societies that demographic decline is most pronounced. In effect, Ms Holmqvist is ignoring the problems of socialism and pretending that capitalism is at fault.

Compounding the difficulty of taking her protest against objectification seriously is the matter of Dorrit's having had an abortion when she was younger. There's something intrinsically bizarre in the complaint that her decision to dispose of an inconvenient life is qualitatively different than her society's decision to end her own inconvenient life. And when she becomes pregnant in the unit but the authorities threaten to take the child away, she responds by asking for another abortion and for immediate termination of her own life. She seems willing to kill herself and her child just to make a point. Talk about disregarding the absolute value of life...

The final disconnect here is that Dorrit is a writer and Ms Holmqvist would appear to want us to sympathize with the way this society considers the artist to be expendable. By the end of the novel though the implication seems to be that the book Dorrit has written about her experience is of equal or greater value to the child. That may be her honest opinion, but it's rather inhuman and hardly makes artists sympathetic figures.

Despite these moral and political confusions, the book is quite readable and deeply creepy. And if the thoughtful reader isn't likely to follow where the author is trying to lead, it is nonetheless thought provoking.


Grade: (C+)


Ninni Holmqvist Links:

    -BOOK SITE: The Unit (Other Press)
    -REVIEW: of The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Unit (Tod Caviness, Orlando Sentinel)
    -REVIEW: of The Unit (Jonathan Messinger, TimeOut Chicago)
    -REVIEW: of The Unit (Callista, SMS Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Unit (Julie Phillips)
    -REVIEW: of The Unit (RhiReading)
    -REVIEW: of Matthew Shaer, B&N)
-REVIEW: of The Unit (The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of The Unit ()

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