The Unit – Ninni Holmqvist
March 21, 2010 § 16 Comments
The Unit is a dystopian book; a story about Dorrit Weger who, as she turns fifty, is brought to live in a place known as ‘the unit’. Here in the unit, she is given a ‘home’ of her own; a place not different from an apartment, with her own bedroom, lounge, bathroom and kitchenette. Within the complex itself, there are shops where items can be taken or ‘checked out’, there’s a library, a sports centre, even a swimming pool with diving boards. A place of eternal summer, gardens bloom without ever turning yellow. It’s almost the kind of life we all dream of. Almost, of course, because there’s a catch. She’s dispensable.
What does it mean for a person, a human being, to be dispensable? It may be something we cannot fully grasp right now, but the idea of it is real, the concept frightening. Dorrit is fifty and childless, and she doesn’t have a job that contributes much to society or to economic capital. In other words, there seems to be no reason why she should still be left using up the nation’s resources, when she isn’t giving anything back.
Melinda had been informed – in black and white – how much a decision to give birth to her child would cost society if the child had this or that functional impairment. She showed me the calculations, and they certainly told a very clear story; it was a case of tens of thousands of millions in losses – and that was just for one functionally impaired individual from the age of zero to fifty.
People like Dorrit are taken to live at the unit, where they are ‘made useful’ by literally becoming human guinea pigs for scientific researches or tests for new medication. They are obliged to donate body parts – skin, cornea, kidney, intestine – to the ‘needed’, the people still living ‘out in the community’, even as they offer up themselves physically and psychologically for tests and treatments that potentially harm them.
Once they enter the unit, they don’t matter anymore. The results of the tests taken at their expense are what matter. They become, quite literally, dispensable. But in an odd roundabout way, the manner in which they are ‘dispensable’ also make them useful. That they can be used as human test objects mean that scientific experiments might have greater breakthroughs.
I knew I was valuable as a dispensable person; I was in perfect health, had excellent readings, was very fit, still had almost all my organs, and on top of that I was carrying a child – fresh human capital – beneath my heart. I was, literally, worth my weight in gold. They couldn’t afford to risk losing me.
It’s a story that reminded me a little of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. There was the sterile environment, the ongoing surveillance of all the residents; in fact, I felt like the unit was itself a character in the book. A place that has everything but a heart. Yet it is in this place, where laws of ‘the community’ don’t apply, where men and women are allowed to do as they wish, that love and friendship blossom like they never did before. Bonds between the residents of the unit are created, shared, cherished.
The book explored some of the harsh realities of our society today; how we have become increasingly PC (politically correct), how we have laws enacted that control how we behave, how money has become such a vital part of surviving. At the same time, Holmqvist portrayed the warmer side of life; the friends we make, the love we share, the enjoyment of little things in life that we tend to take for granted. She gives us no answers, only space for the formation of our own thoughts and emotions, reflections of ourselves in a little way.
* Note: First found out about this book when I read Mark David’s review at Absorbed in Words.