Shortly after her 50th birthday, Dorrit Wenger packs a suitcase of her most prized possessions, gets into a van, and checks into the Second Reserve Bank Unit. There, she and many other single childless women over 50 and single childless men over 60 are given comfortable apartments, free food at lovely restaurants, access to recreational facilities at no cost, and the opportunity to be a family to one another. The catch? Dorrit and the other “dispensables” at the unit must participate in medical experiments and donate their organs to people who have children or who have jobs that make a contribution to the betterment of society. Within a few years, each resident will make a final, fatal donation. The Unit, Ninni Holmqvist’s novel about Dorrit’s life in the Unit was first released in Sweden in 2006, and it makes its debut in the U.S. this week.
I’ve mentioned many times here that I love dystopian literature, but The Unit rattled me in a way few dystopian novels have. It hit me where I live. As I was reading, it was impossible for me to ignore the fact that, as a single woman without any children, I could easily be declared dispensable in the world of this novel. True, I’m a ways away from turning 50, but I’m also past the age where marriage and children appear to be a foregone conclusion. So I took this book personally.
Before arriving at the Unit, Dorrit seemed well contented with her life. Her main trouble was the knowledge that she was on her way to becoming dispensable. Her only serious unhappiness came from how society viewed her. When Dorrit arrives at the Unit, she and the other new arrivals are told that they will be much happier in the Unit because they will not be viewed as odd or eccentric, and they will, for the first time, be able to enjoy a sense of belonging. And the truth is that they do. Although Dorrit was not unhappy before, in the Unit she is able to enjoy some new and different types of happiness, largely through her connections with others. But is it worth it?
One of my favorite aspects of The Unit was how well Holmqvist expresses the pleasures and pain involved in living alone. For example, when Dorrit explained how she felt about leaving her dog behind, she expressed perfectly how one comes to rely on a pet for regular doses of affection when that pet is your only day-to-day companion. The creators of the Unit would probably say that this affection doesn’t count and that Dorrit will be happier once she starts spending more time with other people. And as it turns out, Dorrit is happy to be surrounded by friends and to find a lover, but that doesn’t mean her previous life was miserable. Any sort of life is a mix of pleasure and pain.
Holmqvist also raises significant questions about what it means to make a contribution to society—to be needed. Is parenthood or a service job the only proper contribution? Many of the people in the Unit are artists and writers. When residents make donations, they are often told about the recipients (“a nurse with four children” or “a carpenter with three children and six grandchildren”). The implication is that the dispensible are giving their lives for people who matter, but who decides what does matter? Don’t all lives matter? Today, we may not take the organs of people we deem unimportant, but do we devalue the lives of certain people in less obvious ways?
The Unit has everything that I look for in a dystopian novel. It asks tough questions and causes me to reflect on the values I see expressed in the society around me. It’s a story that will stick with me.