My school’s summer reading is chosen by the students, which means that I’m inevitably forced to read dystopian YA fiction, instead of, I don’t know, quality writing. Two years ago, the populace decided on Divergent, which I abandoned in favor of the Wikipedia article and Shailene Woodley, and last year we were supposed to read Between Shades Of Gray, which didn’t seem too bad, but I’d rather spend my valuable reading time on books of my own choosing. This summer’s read is Unwind, a (you guessed it) dystopian YA novel by Neal Shusterman. Prepare to be barraged with confusion…
Initially, Unwind has an edgy, relevant premise. In a not-so-distant future, Americans fought the Heartland War over abortion, leaving both sides devastated and forced to find a compromise. This story could have so many directions– following the after-effects on the pro-choice side or the pro-life side, discussing the complex morality that is inherent to such a polarizing issue, or any other plot along those lines. But instead, we’re introduced to a completely nonsensical post-war America: an Unwind America. Fetal abortion has been outlawed, instead replaced with Unwinding (typical YA euphemisms), a process that allows parents to sign their children aged 13-18 (thirteen being Shusterman’s “age of reasoning”) over to the U.S government to be dismantled (yep) and their body parts donated to ailing citizens.
If you don’t think about it for more than three seconds, the premise makes sense. Organs are commonly sold on the black market in 2015, patients on life support can be taken off in order to save their vitals, and children donate blood at 16 and can even sign up to donate their body parts. It makes sense that the U.S government would support a measure that could revolutionize the health industry.
Three seconds have passed. Think again!
The Unwinding Law states that any child between 13 and 18 can legally (LEGALLY) be unwound. “Everyone knew that an Unwind order was irreversible” (6), meaning that even if a parent regrets their decision, once the paper is signed, the child belongs to the state. Already, this seems like a mistake waiting to happen. The law’s intention is to target people like Connor:
Thinking ahead has never been one of Connor’s strong points. If it was, he might not have gotten into the various situations that have plagued him over the past few years. Situations that got him labels “troubled” and “at risk” and finally this last label, “unwind.”
In theory, this makes sense. Let’s take all of those troubled, petty-criminal youths and put their parts to better use, whether it be “fingers [that] go to a sculptor” or “eyes [that] go to a photographer–one who shoots supermodels” (175). In reality, however, there are infinite ways for the law to be abused. No reasoning is necessary to unwind a child, and parents take advantage of that. Connor Lassiter, one of the three protagonists, is being unwound because he’s suffering from traditional teenage rebellion. According to Connor’s vague descriptions, he’s been in a lot of fights, yet there’s little characterization in the book portraying him as overly rough or violent. But then again, there’s little characterization portraying Connor as anything.
Similarly, the girl Risa (she’s THE GIRL), is an Unwind because of budget cuts at her State Home, Hayden is being unwound because his parents are divorcing and couldn’t decide on custody, and Harlan Dunfee was infamously unwound because his father was trying to set an example for the community. Through these stories, Shusterman ridicules what the law has become, without addressing how implausible the law is in the first place. Are we supposed to believe that a government would legalize child murder and no one would bat an eyelash? That parents, millions and millions of parents, would sacrifice their children to the harvest camps (eugh) in belief that their divided parts will still be living, albeit in hundreds of different donors?
Shusterman tries to paint Unwinds as some sort of social outcasts disdained by the rest of society. Those who try to help save Unwinds, like Sonia in the antique shop, or the Admiral and his airplane graveyard, must do so in complete secrecy. But unlike historical ostracism a la the Jews or the Untouchable caste in India, there’s no thousand-year precedence of discrimination. We’re supposed to believe that in the span of a few decades an entire society believes that it’s okay to kill children, that a society would even kill their own children on a whim, because somehow this remedies the abortion problem. The question of whether to kill an unborn fetus is a debatable one, but there is no gray area in killing a person who has lived for more than 13 years. That’s straight-out murder, completely unrelated to abortion.
Implausible laws aside, even the matter of Unwinding makes zero sense. The Unwinding process is described in detail when it happens to Roland, the novel’s villain/ most inconsistent character:
“We’ve just inserted catheters into your carotid artery and jugular vein,” says the nurse.” Now your blood is being replaced by a synthetic, oxygen-rich solution.”
First, they take out all of your blood. Alright, seems reasonable. Can’t see annnyyy problems with this, especially when you’re transfusing blood in the JUGULAR VEIN.
“Surgeons leave, new ones arrive. The new ones take an interest in his abdomen. He looks towards his toes but can’t see them. “
I guess they move from the toes up, section by section. According to the law, the Unwinding procedure must utilize 100 percent of the body, so that the Unwind is still “living”. Perhaps I’m nitpicky, but whaaaaa? How do you use 100 percent of a body? And how do you decide what parts go where? Say someone needs a new arm, but someone else needs only a hand. Do you cut off the hand at the wrist? Then do you have to attach a different Unwind’s hand to the severed arm? Do they pry out each individual tooth, or take them at the gums? What about the genitals? Sorry to be gross, but these are some serious questions. CyFi, one of the other characters in the book, talks about receiving an entire right temporal lobe instead of “a buncha brain bits, like people are supposed to get” (126), which leaves me even more confused. Do the surgeons dismantle each part of the brain? How do they store these chunks of brain? How the heck would grafting tiny parts of brains make a working brain? But I ain’t no doctor like Neal Shusterman…
Besides the dubious medical scenes, Unwind doesn’t have much else going for it. It’s written in 3rd person present tense, which simultaneously distances you from the characters while instilling a jolting immediacy to the writing. Present tense is common to YA books (You’re reallllly in their head!), but 3rd person? I could forgive Shusterman this lapse in judgment if the style was compelling, but his writing is so dull that I started counting how many times he repeated words. His writing tries to act imitate casual speak while falling into the trap of being incredibly vague and dull.
“The pawnbroker isn’t watching the game anymore. His eyes are on it, but his mind is keeping track of the kid as he meanders through the shop looking at things, as if he might want to buy something.”
In two sentences, Shusterman uses “it”, “things”, “something” and “kid”. There’s no attempt to add any vibrant words, no description of the surroundings, not even descriptions of the kid, Lev, a MAIN PROTAGONIST, from the pawnbroker’s potentially unique perspective. Why were we even given the pawnbroker’s perspective if he has no unique thoughts to characterize Lev? We could’ve read the same scene from Lev’s point of view and missed nothing. This perspective change is endemic throughout the book–giving the reader glimpses of characters who neither matter nor add anything of significance to the plot. We get the P.O.V of a cop that Connor tasers, instead of hearing what Connor thinks when he tasers the cop. We get the P.O.V of Roland, the erstwhile villain, thus eliminating anything mysterious or villainous about him. We get the perspective of the Mob, for chrissakes, instead of Risa’s, who is in the same situation as this bunch of people we care nothing about.
As for the three main characters Connor, Risa, and Lev, I feel little connection. There was barely any physical description of the three besides their ages and genders. Connor has brown eyes (ochre?amber?ember?umber?), I think Lev had red hair, and I think Risa was darker than the other two, but maybe I’m inferring that because of her hispanic name (Sonrisa). There’s little that elevates the protagonists from stock characters. Connor is the stereotypical bad boy with a heart of gold, Risa is The Girl (seriously) who plays piano, but only mentions her talent when it suits the plot. She’s a tough ward of the state who likes babies and can think on her feet. Lev is the youngest, used to play baseball, wears a white coat, and has a struggle with religion that is predictably resolved by the end of the novel.
By far the most interesting character, Roland, is undermined immediately by the bias Shusterman shows against him. He’s first introduced to us with this little exchange:
“The big kid is Roland…he had beaten up his stepfather for beating up his mom. The mom took his stepfather’s side, and his stepfather got off with a warning. Roland, on the other hand, was sent to be unwound.”
“That’s so unfair,” says Risa.
“Like what happened to you was any fairer?” says Connor.
“You keep talking to her in that tone of voice, maybe she’ll find herself a new boyfriend,” says Roland.
Connor smiles at him with mocking warmth…[and] makes a mental note never to turn his back on Roland.
Through Connor, we are made to hate Roland, although little he does gives indication that he is villainous, or even when it does, is consistent with his character. Connor dislikes Roland because he is large and muscular and acts as alpha male during their interactions. By his actions, however, Roland is established as no more than a typical testosterone-filled teenager. Shusterman slowly builds his “personality” by describing him as some sort of criminal mastermind.
“The kids who eat first are the ones who hangout with Roland, but he never goes to the front of the line himself. His closest friends infiltrate cliques and get them arguing so that they break apart. Roland is especially nice to the kids who everyone else feels sorry for, until nobody feels sorry for them, and then he uses them.”
Wow, truly evil. Being nice to kids? Sharing food with his friends? Awful stuff. But of course, he still hates Connor, and Connor hates him, and thus Roland is obvvvioousssly trying to kill Connor.
Roland the Criminal Mastermind would come up with a brilliant plan to undermine Connor, right? Something along the lines of “Attempt to rape Risa so that Connor will find out and attack Roland so that Roland has justification to kill him?” I don’t know about you, but this plan is not what comes to mind when I think of criminal masterminds.
“Roland sees him too, catching his reflection in the bathroom mirror, but doesn’t release Risa.
“Well,” says Roland. “Isn’t this awkward?”
Connor steps over the threshold but doesn’t move towards them. Instead, he goes to the sink. “Mind if I wash up?”
“Your girlfriend’s had her eye on me since Sonia’s basement,” says Roland. “You know that don’t you?”
“Risa and I broke up this morning. Should I turn off the light when I leave?”
But then Roland releases his grip on Risa. “Well now the mood’s ruined, isn’t it. I was just kidding anyway.I wouldn’t have done anything.”
Rape as a plot device is never okay, but a rape this dumb and unrealistic? Criminal! Sure, I’ll believe that Roland would rape Risa. To lure Connor into fighting him? Okay, that’s a stretch, but I’ll bite. Wait, now you say that he will immediately stop raping Risa just because Connor uses kindergarten-level reverse psychology on him and then apologize and leave the bathroom? And we’re still supposed to believe that this guy is a manipulative mega mastermind?
None of this characterization is believable, and it continues to not be believable. Connor blames Roland for killing five other kids, when surprise! Roland didn’t do it. It was actually Mai, the asian girl, but why would Connor suspect her? I mean, he can be as biased as hell against Roland, but never racist. Now look, I’m not defending Roland, but I’m not condemning him either, mainly because I don’t know who Roland really is. His actions say he’s bull-headed and belligerent, but 2nd hand characterization says he’s the next Lex Luthor. Who do I believe, Shusterman?!!!!
There are compelling ideas in this book, there truly are. Lev, for instance, is a tithe, donated as an Unwind by his church. Studying that concept beyond the simple “wow, religion be craaazzzzy” could have really elevated this novel. Other parts of the Unwind world like storking, where unwanted babies are left on stranger’s doorsteps, or clappers, who blow up chop shops, are also ideas worth exploring. Unfortunately, we spend too much time focused on stock characters like Connor, Risa, and Lev who give basic insight to those concepts.
Overall, I could recommend much better novels about “unwinding” than Unwind. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro deals with the same premise of organ donation, but in a more nuanced way, and the writing is breathtaking. I think this novel missed the mark on all levels and wouldn’t recommend this book for people who value plot, characterization, or any distinctive style. I give it 2 out 5 internal organs.
Spare Parts (pun intended)
- “Lady Lips”- Do people have lip grafts? Why on earth would you need new lips and not a whole new face?
- Risa is a ward in a State Home, but all the cool kids call it StaHo, because 2 syllables wasn’t abbreviated enough.
- Shusterman tries not to be racist by calling CyFi “umber” and Lev “sienna”. But he still calls Mai “Asian”. I guess “golden” wasn’t an appropriate subsitution.
- Humphrey Dunfee = Humpty Dumpty. Because his parents couldn’t put back his pieces together again. Sounds like an anti-joke right?