Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Winston Smith, hero of the seminal dystopian 1984, once remarked "The best books tell you what you already know." Whether George Orwell meant it to be ironic or not is debatable, but it's very true. A great story doesn't preach to the reader. Rather, it brings clarity to things the reader already knew from his or her own life experience. It uses what the reader already knows to impart an understanding - perhaps great, perhaps small - of the nature of the world and the human condition.

I'm prepared to call Neal Shusterman's Unwind a great book. In fact, I'm prepared to call it one of the most significant YA books of the past ten years. I'm even prepared to say that it's the kind of book that will, and should be, stocked in school libraries and taught in junior high english classes decades from now. It's skillfully written and tensely plotted, but more than that, it has ideas. Important ideas about important things.

The premise is that a generation or so before the story begins, the pro-life and pro-choice factions of the American public came to all-out civil war. The problem was solved by a compromise: from conception to thirteen years of age, human life is protected by law. However, from thirteen years to eighteen, a child can, with his parents' consent, be "unwound". He or she is carved up into his component organs, which are then transplanted into donors who are in need (or just prefer new eyes to wearing glasses all the time). The rationalization is that life of the body doesn't technically end, but pretty much nobody actually believes this, least of all the kids sentenced to it. Our main characters are Connor, Risa, and Lev, three teens due to be unwound. Escape from the authorities, they go on the lam, trying to survive until they become legal adults.

It's a great premise, and as I said, it makes for a great book. I am not, however, prepared to say that it is perfect. The plot has a kind of thrown-together feel; essentially, our heroes move from one adventure to another, meeting other characters and situations along the way. I got the feeling that I wasn't really reading a novel, but a series of short stories jerry-rigged into one. I don't mind that either. Dystopians are about dysfunctional societies, so many of them use the plot as simply an excuse to move the protagonist around and observe the setting. But there are places in Unwind where the seams are visible. Lev's character arc shows it the worst. When we first meet him, he's a doe-eyed innocent brought up to celebrate his potential unwinding as a religious experience. Early on, he's separated from the other two and disappears, then the next time we see him he's a kind of Artful Dodger in training. The next time we see him after that, the world has beaten him into a cynical loner with anger issues. How he got from point A to point B to point C is given only a cursory explanation.

I don't mean to say that the plot of Unwind is bad, because it isn't. Despite some rough edges, it moves at a brisk pace and is never anything less than involving. But it's obvious that neither the plot nor characters are really that important. What's important are the ideas.

So, what about the ideas?

Well, Unwind has been marketed as a book about abortion. It isn't. The pro-life/pro-choice civil war is given only the barest of mentions, and in so far as Shusterman  has an opinion, it would seem to be contempt for both sides. He portrays the Great Debate Of Our Times as an unhealthy distraction that blinds us to more serious issues, and engenders fanaticism and obsession. This idea is developed further in the sequel, which explicitly defines the Unwinding Accords as a method of avoiding problems rather than having to talk about and deal with them.

If you wanted, you could construct a Liberal Christian interpretation of the novel that frames it as a condemnation of the pro-life movement. The idea that unwinding is acceptable because the body lives on as a collection of transplanted organs is a slap in the face to Conservative Christians for focusing on the life of the body - which never lasts forever anyway - over the life of the soul. But except for a discussion between several characters about what makes them alive (the eventual conclusion being that they can't know), Shusterman eschews any spiritual or metaphysical argument in favor of concrete, secular ones.

No, the true thrust of the book goes deeper. Broadly, it's about man's inhumanity to man. Specifically, it's about a lot of things: selfishness, political partisanship, apathy towards others ("Not my problem" is practically the mantra of the damned), trophy children. Most of all, though, it's about depersonalization. It's about what happens, and what we're capable of, when we start thinking about our fellow human beings as problems rather than people. It's about what happens when people stop having names and instead become part of a "them". It's about how absolutely critical it is to a society that everyone be acknowledged as someone.

This is something that we, the people of this place and time in history, need to learn. But then again, it's also something we already know.

Read this book.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.