Nope, not that kind of unit.
The titular Unit is a self-contained environment that exists within the otherwise ordinary world of the near future. Adults who have made it to the age of fifty, like the book’s narrator Dorrit, and have not had children or otherwise “contributed” to society, are sent there to be taken care of for the rest of their lives. It’s one of those Hotel California deals where once you arrive you are never going to leave. Like an upscale retirement home for non-elderly people.
It’s pretty nice, too. There’s a complete gym and exercise complex, beautifully prepared and served meals, private apartments, a library, and convincing approximations of outdoor spaces. In many ways, the Unit seems kind of appealing, in the same way that being in prison can look tempting in my weaker moments where I’m tired of making dinners and going to work and I just want a quiet place to learn French and do a graduate degree.
Except, of course, there’s a catch. Two catches, really:
All residents are constantly monitored via surveillance cameras and microphones. Not so bad, right? Kind of like how we all live right now.
A condition of living in the unit is that all residents are required to participate in medical experiments and donate organs and healthy tissues to the more valuable humans living their lives on the outside. Eventually all residents make the ultimate donation of heart and lungs, which ends their lives. Now that’s a catch.
Unlike Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which I thought of frequently while reading, these characters already know what their life’s purpose is once they arrive in the unit. Each new resident undergoes a period of grief over lost personal connections and freedom, but eventually everyone seems to make peace with their new fate.
Dorrit is no exception. She is initially sad and fearful when she arrives at the Unit. She dwells on how she lived her previous life freely as an artist with a boyfriend and a beloved dog named Jock. In certain moments she regrets never having children, but she also, in a very realistic way, acknowledges that her life choices were informed by reasonable insights at the time that she made them. I really appreciated her reckoning with this choice all women eventually face. No matter who we are, we must at some point imagine the trajectory our lives could have taken, and make peace with whether we did or did not have children.
The pacing of the book is a pleasantly slow. Dorrit eventually settles into the Unit, making some close friends and even building a romantic relationship with Johannes, an older resident. This is a big deal for Dorrit, whose primary relationship in the outside world was with a married man who could never fully commit to her. Indeed, her scenes with Johannes are some of the tenderest and most charming moments in the book. Not the sex scenes though. More than being simply unromantic, they have a kind of clinical tone, like maybe your dentist and your Gr. 9 Phys Ed teacher teamed up to write them. Ugh.
(Could someone else read this book and tell me that I’m right about the sex scenes, or that I’m wrong and I should worry about how prudish I’m getting in my dotage? Anyone?)
What is beguiling about the Unit is that it is so much like regular life in a very essential way: residents are able to speculate on how and when their lives will end, but no one knows for sure. Ordinary risks (say, the ones we rely on daily to cope with our personal darkness) are reduced because no one drinks alcohol or smokes, no one drives a car or is allowed to go outside, even. Residents must be healthy when they arrive, or they would not be medical donors. On the other hand, many residents suffer great pain as a result of the experiments they are subject to, including exposure to toxic gases and removal of corneas and kidneys. Very often residents simply disappear, which means they have made their final donation; each time Dorrit must process the loss she has experienced, but also reckon with the reality that she too will one day disappear completely. Kind of like all of us?
In sum, I found this to be a deeply provocative book. It invites us to ask, what exactly constitutes freedom? I think of Margaret Atwood who asserted in The Handmaid’s Tale that there are two kinds of freedom: freedom from, and freedom to. Do we need both to truly be free? Is any one person or group of people more entitled to freedom than any other? Certainly not, and yet so often in the history of the world, people suffer because some folks are considered more important than others and thus, more entitled to be free.
There are so many ways to envision a dystopian society. The spookiest of those imagined futures, like the one in this book, could almost pass for the world we already live in.