The Unit

Broadly speaking, Ninni Holmqvist’s debut novel fits into the tradition of dystopian literature. In the Sweden she describes, a law has been passed that women at the age of 50 (and men at the age of 60) who have no living children or spouses are deemed “dispensable” and sent to live at a Reserve Bank Unit for the rest of their lives. While in “the Unit,” the “dispensables” participate in experiments (psychological and physical) and donate various organs (kidneys, corneas, etc.) to the “useful” members of society, up until the day that they make their “final donation.” In other words, these freeloaders are essentially harvested for the benefit of those who are contributing more to society.

In depicting a dystopia, Holmqvist faces the almost intractable problem of making sure that this future seems believable, seems connected to our present, yet sets forth a new set of rules for how human behavior is governed. The best books in this tradition are the ones that depict a future that seems so potentially possible that the reader doesn’t ask too many questions. Holmqvist isn’t perfect with this, but she does provide a sort of “live your life alone, spend the end of it giving back to society” mantra that sort of makes sense. (And may make more sense in Scandinavia?) It’s implied on occasion that economics and general consumption are behind the creation of this system — if you’re not breeding and increasing society’s consumption, you’re dispensable — which is uber-creepy.

Aside from the suspension of belief necessary to accept the creation of the Units, this book is actually incredibly straight-forward — essentially just a love story in a weird context.

The entire novel is narrated by Dorrit Weger, opening with her arrival at the Second Reserve Bank Unit on her fiftieth birthday and her depiction of a seemingly innocuous, yet invasive world:

It was more comfortable than I could have imagined. A room of my own with a bathroom, or rather an apartment of my own, because there were two rooms: a bedroom and a living room with a kitchenette. It was light and spacious, furnished in a modern style and tastefully decorated in muted colors. True, the tiniest nook or cranny was monitored by cameras, and I would soon realize there were hidden microphones there too. But the cameras weren’t hidden.

Aside from a quick surface tour of the Unit and its enormous Winter Garden, its very popular library (“It’s because there are so many intellectuals here. [. . .] People who read books tend to be dispensable. Extremely.”), the restaurants, the general rules (you don’t have to work, just be ready for organ donation or assignment to an experiment), and a few harrowing stories of experiments gone awry, Holmqvist doesn’t dwell on the inner workings of this creepy institute, instead focusing on the relationships between Dorrit and the other “dispensables.”

Early on in the novel, Dorrit — who was a professional writer before entering the Unit — meets fellow writer Johannes, and the two of them hit it off and become romantically involved. They spend most of their time together, getting into a comfortable routine, and wishing they had met in the “real world” so that they could’ve been spared the Unit.

Along the way, Dorrit becomes pregnant and runs into one of the strict and disturbing aspects of life as a dispensable: since she’s already entered the Unit, she can either have the fetus transferred to a “useful” person, or bring it to term and give it up for adoption. Already pissed that her desire to raise the baby with Johannes is being thwarted, she’s dealt a crushing blow when she finds out that Johannes has just undergone his final donation . . .

Up to this point, the novel works pretty well. It’s not as creepy as it could be, and it’s pretty conventional. Nevertheless, it’s entertaining (great for a plane ride), reads very well (thanks to Marlaine Delargy’s translation), and is pretty compelling. But after Dorrit finds out she’s pregnant and Johannes dies, character motivations get all out of whack and the narrative runs out of steam.

The main turning point is a scene in which a nurse with a birthmark gives Dorrit a key card and the necessary password to allow her to escape. Why?

“I presume that you, like other dispensable individuals, have already lost everything once. And now it’s happening to you again. And I feel . . . well, I can’t just stand and watch. Yes, you are dispensable, and no doubt could have avoided that situation if you had just made enough off an effort. But you’re also a human being.”

In the context of the book — this is the first time the character is introduced, and there are many smaller opportunities for a sympathetic staff member to alleviate some of their guilt and help out a dispensable — this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But what’s kind of cool, is Holmqvist’s attempt to work around the key card question and other problems that this raises . . . By the end of the novel, it’s clear that Dorrit is the supposed author, and that this book will be read by the staff of the Unit. So:

I am not the kind of person who betrays a trust. For example, in this story I have not revealed the true circumstances under which I received the key card. Neither of the two nurses who met me when I raced into the surgical department that day has a birthmark. Nor was it either of those two who gave me the key card, and the conversation with the person who did give me the card did not in fact take place in the break room where I sat and waited as I gazed out at the snow-covered park with the pond and the ducks, but in a completely different room in a completely different part of the unit, and at another time. And the code is actually not 98 44 at all.

By the very end of the novel, Dorrit has used the key card to escape, but the decisions she makes once outside are also a bit perplexing, but are probably supposed to serve as the “big question” that the reader can ponder after closing the book. . . .

Overall, this isn’t a bad novel. It’s quick, entertaining, and enjoyable. But it fails to rise above its common elements to become something truly remarkable.

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