After finally finishing and publishing a book about parenthood, and with my own two kids in college, I find myself now looking around, like a groundhog coming out of its hole in the Spring. One of the things I’m noticing (more) is people who aren’t parents. I wonder what their lives are like. Are they freer, happier, more productive? Are they worse off than people with children in any way?
In this state of readiness for reflection about a life without children, I jumped when I discovered the novel The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist (originally published in 2006 in Swedish and reissued this year). The book is about childlessness, but also about the classic organ donation scenario everyone hears about in Intro to Ethics: the surgeon can save five only by using one healthy person as an organ bank. I love a good dystopia, especially one set in a cold northern climate. I bought the book about thirty seconds after discovering it.
Holmqvist envisions a Sweden in which the childless are turned into guinea pigs and organ donors for the rest of the population, women at age fifty and men at age sixty. Since they don’t have children who need them, they’re members of the “dispensable” class. Dorrit Weger, who just turned fifty, goes sadly but willingly to “The Unit”, the luxury facility where dispensables spend their final years. The staff treat her with great compassion, but she must sacrifice her health and organs to benefit people who are needed by their children. The dispensables are invited to see the logic that it’s better to kill one childless person, in order to save eight people with many dependents (not five, as in the classic Intro scenario).
The occupants of the Unit succumb pretty readily to being chopped up and redistributed. They enjoy all the amenities they’re offered – the walks around the gardens, the parties, the delicious meals, the chance to write and create art and music, the friendships, the love affairs. I won’t spoil it for you and explain whether there’s any misery or resistance at all, but I’ll tell you that there’s less than in other organ donation narratives, like Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro) and the movie “The Island”.
Why so much passivity and compliance? That’s never fully explained within the world of the novel, but an afterword sheds light on why the author wrote a book like this. Holmqvist begins, “I had recently turned forty-five when I suddenly realized one day that I was completely dispensable.” She doesn’t say she realised other people viewed her that way, but that she actually was dispensable. Her friends and relatives would be sad if she died, but “Nobody would wonder: How am I going to manage now, who’s going to take care of me, who’s going to support me, who’s going to console me when I’m sad?”
Surprisingly, she embraces this notion of dispensability. “These words that exploded in my head like a bomb, ‘my God, I’m completely dispensable,’ had more of a liberating effect on me.” So, she didn’t write her novel to protest the perception that childless people are dispensable, but to explore the feeling. On the other hand, despite the liberatory effect, she also says she is sorrowful, and that’s the main quality that imbues her characters.
Holmqvist says that the novel just happens to be dystopian and just happens to focus on organ donation. The Unit’s grim business is a pretext to explore the sorrowfulness of people who don’t have the satisfaction of being responsible for others. But that’s hard to pull off. Inevitably, the characters seem peculiar for mostly feeling sorrow in this setting. Why aren’t they angry and indignant? Have they been so steeped in crude Utilitarianism that they actually think they’re being treated correctly?
Putting her characters in The Unit also stops Holmqvist from exploring whether so-called dispensables really do, inevitably, have to feel so sad. Had they not been hauled off to be disassembled, was sorrow inevitable? Could they have lived their previous lives to the end, maybe even contentedly? And would it have been out of the question to consider whether anyone is actually dispensable? Must we be needed in the way babies need their parents, to be needed at all? And on the other hand, might we entertain the thought that people have inherent value, and not just value to others?
The Unit initially appears to be a novel protesting the low status of people who aren’t parents, but turns out to be just the opposite. Holmqvist uses the horror of forcible organ donation only to magnify what she sees as the sad uselessness of society’s soloists, not to proclaim that everyone has value, whether to others or to themselves. This wasn’t quite the affirmation of a worthwhile life without children that I was expecting when I decided I needed to read this book.