Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Slouching towards Dachau

Mixing Logan's Run and Never Let Me Go, Swedish debut novelist Nini Holmqvist' the Unit, describes a future where childless elders are sent to clinical units for medical experimentation and organ donation. The elders (50+ for women and 60+ for men), called dispensibles, are taken away by efficient means and then locked away until death in brightly lit but isolated rooms.

The story centers on Dorrit, an underemployed artist who nevers has children, two strikes in the utilitarian, economic efficiency focused society Holmqvist depicts. The society above all values contribution to the group, and apparently art doesn't count. Sending people to these units is justified because they can no longer give to group economically, so they give their organs and their bodies for experiments. A major theme of the book is that value can't always be quantified and that life shouldn't be guided in that way. While I think the explanation of how the society got there could have been more fully developed, it is an interesting depiction of how the world could return to viewing some people as not deserving humane treatment.

There is a cool detachment about the operations that makes them all the more galling. Dorrit herself though is also so detached, until she meets the love of her life in the Unit, that she is not as compelling a character as she might be. Her seemingly bizarre decision at the end of the book makes some sense in light of the ethos of the society, but doesn't fit her exactly.

The book feels quite European to me. The cool, spare prose reminded me of other Swedish writers. The statist dystopia depicted is peculiar from the American viewpoint. With communities and alleigiances fraying, it is the absence of state power and its replacement by a collection of market and jurisdictional forces competing for loyalty and control that seem the more likely bleak future. Still, a good first effort and it will be interesting to see what comes next.


HLK said...

Tell me I'm not the only one here feverishly racking his brain to remember Junior Year Dickens Seminar, to recall the plot of - and thereby draw parallels to - Little Dorrit. Government inefficiency? Debtor's Prison? Muck and mire?

Tripp said...

I too was looking for the Little Dorrit connection. It has been a long time for it though.

I think the debtor's prison is the key comparison. Dickens was also talking about class structure, and downward mobility. I think Holmqvist is arguing that a new class structure based on some natalist notion of contribution could emerge.