The Unit (Paperback)
Other Press (NY), 9781590513132, 268pp.
Publication Date: June 9, 2009
Fall '09/Winter '10 Reading Group List
— Molly Young, Orinda Books, Orinda, CA
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About the Author
Praise For The Unit…
Named one of the Best Novels of 2009 by the Wall Street Journal
Marcela Valdes, The Washington Post
“A haunting, deadpan tale set vaguely in the Scandinavian future…Holmqvist’s spare prose interweaves the Unit’s pleasures and cruelties with exquisite matter-of-factness…[Holmqvist] turns the screw, presenting a set of events so miraculous and abominable that they literally made me gasp.”
Jessa Crispin, NPR.org
“Echoing work by Marge Piercy and Margaret Atwood, The Unit is as thought-provoking as it is compulsively readable.”
The New Yorker
“This haunting first novel imagines a nation in which men and women who haven’t had children by a certain age are taken to a “reserve bank unit for biological material” and subjected to various physical and psychological experiments, while waiting to have their organs harvested for “needed” citizens in the outside world… Holmqvist evocatively details the experiences of a woman who falls in love with another resident, and at least momentarily attempts to escape her fate.”
“Eerie, chilling, yet almost plausible…Holmqvist gives us a lesson in human nature and social engineering through a story that is spare, compelling, and all too human.”
“Holmqvist handles her dystopia with muted, subtle care...Neither satirical nor polemical, The Unit manages to express a fair degree of moral outrage without ever moralizing…it has enough spooks to make it a feminist, philosophical page-turner.”
Tim Gebhart, Blogcritics.org
“The Unit raises issues of love, gender, freedom, and social mores through the perspective of how we assess an individual's contribution to society…Holmqvist's ability to invest the reader in both the story and the characters is exceptional. It is a book you hesitate to put down. In fact, I consumed it in the space of a couple separate sittings in less than a day…the book is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Yet to classify or judge it as a feminist work alone is unfair. It certainly surpasses Kazuo Ishiguro's widely praised Never Let Me Go…Hopefully, the fact this is a translated work and tends to be billed as feminist literature will not adversely affect the book's ability to make it to bookstore shelves. The Unit deserves a wide readership.”
Kelly Fitzpatrick, The Orlando Sentinel
“This is one of the best books I’ve read over the past two years...Thought-provoking and emotionally-moving, The Unit is a book you’ll be discussing with others long after you’re done reading it.”
"Chilling…stunning…Holmqvist’s fluid, mesmerizing novel offers unnerving commentary on the way society devalues artistic creation while elevating procreation, and speculation on what it would be like if that was taken to an extreme. For Orwell and Huxley fans."
"Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, this novel imagines a chilling dystopia: single, childless, midlife women are considered dispensable. At 50 the narrator, Dorrit, is taken to a facility where non-vital organs will be harvested one by one for people more valued by society; she knows that eventually she’ll have to sacrifice something essential’ like her heart. Dorrit accepts her fate–until she falls in love and finds herself breaking the rules."
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
“…Holmqvist’s marvelous book doesn’t browbeat her thesis into the reader and smartly expands her ideas to look at the plight of all marginalized folk, women and men alike, and how the promise of comforts can be the most horrifying of all. Prepare to be disturbed, but prepare further to think about the ramifications.”
"Pricey shops that require no money. Gardens that trump Monet’ s. Creature comforts galore. But Swedish ace Holmqvist’s English-language debut soon discloses a catch. The shelf-life for inhabitants of this paradise is about six years. This is the Second Reserve Bank Unit, into which the State herds women 50 and up, and men 60 and over, to use for biological material. They’re fattened like calves, but there’s civic-duty payback: mandatory organ donation, culminating in the final “gift” of their lungs and hearts. Big Brother doesn’t take every oldster, just those termed “dispensables”: the cash-strapped, underachieving or, worst of all, childless. Dorrit Weger, freelance writer, dog-lover and free sprit, is initially mesmerized by her new surroundings. She feels a sense of community, a closeness never offered by Nils, the inadequate lover who would never leave his wife. And she takes pride in being needed when she’s enlisted in one of the Unit’s many medical experiments. It’s a benign investigation into the effects of exercise, but in the cafeteria and on the lush grounds Dorrit soon notices other campers sleepwalking like zombies or displaying weirdly blotched skin. As her roommates are ushered off one by one to their final donations, she panics into the arms of Johannes, a fellow Unit resident who actually manages to impregnate her. Dazzled by upcoming motherhood, Dorrit is certain her bulging belly will gain her freedom. Proven at last productive, she’s bound to be rewarded by the State….isn’t she? In her first novel, short-story writer Holmqvist echoes political-science treatises like Hobbes’ Leviathan and Rousseau’ s The Social Contract (gone decidedly mad here), as well as the usual dystopian novels from Brave New World to 1984. Orwellian horrors in a Xanadu on Xanax—creepily profound and most provocative."
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
- Dorrit can be described as very obedient. She submits to her fate by going to The Unit without protest and does not seem naturally inclined to buck authority. What personality traits or life circumstances do you think causes a person to be obedient? Conversely, what leads one to question the rules of the establishment? Are you the type to question or accept the status quo? What do you think makes you that way?
- In The Unit, the residents are surrounded by luxuries they did not know in their former lives outside. The food is abundant, fresh, and masterfully prepared and presented. Their apartments are comfortable and well-appointed. They have access state-of-the-art exercise facilities, and can shop in lovely boutiques in exchange for no money whatsoever. How do you see the availability these creature comforts to the indispensables? As perks? Mere distractions? How is this different from the meaning you might attach to these things in your own life?
- Although she was content, owned a home with a garden, had a dog she loved, and a love affair with Nils, Dorrit was deemed by the state to be dispensable. To whom or to what was Dorrit's presence necessary? What determines one's worth? In order for our lives to have meaning, do you feel that we must make a contribution to greater society?
- Dorrit comes from a big family--she was one of five children. And yet she describes them as being "scattered to the winds like a dandelion clock." What caused her family to become so disconnected? In thinking about your own life, what things do you do to maintain a family bond? What significance does family hold for you?
- Dorrit finds more love and companionship in the Unit than she ever did in her former life. Why do you suppose intimacy comes easier to her in The Unit? Do you think she ever would have developed deep friendships outside? Why or why not?
- There are many gifted artists in residence at The Unit. Dorrit's writing comes much easier to her there than it did at home. What is it about The Unit that enables such creativity to come to the fore?
- Dorrit was raised in the time before the laws about organ donations and indispensables were enacted, in the post-women's lib era when independence was encouraged and valued. Dorrit's mother, having raised five children and seeing the possibilities that lay before her three daughters, discourages them from getting "caught in a trap" by a having children and getting married. Yet these women live to see values shift once again to the point where a woman's life is only of value if she is a mother. How is Dorrit a product of her time but also trapped by it? Discuss the paradox of being a feminist in a society where your life only has meaning if you provide for others.
- Why do you think that, despite their closeness and Dorrit's pregnancy, Johannes makes his final donation without consulting Dorrit and without saying goodbye in a deliberate way? In what ways is this decision selfish? Selfless? Do you think Johannes did the right thing? Why or why not?
- Why does Dorrit abandon her escape attempt and return to The Unit? What would you have done?
- Several times over the course of the novel, the society is referred to as a democracy. In what sense is it a fully democratic society? Are the people in the wider community truly free? What freedoms are afforded to the dispensables?