Friday, June 12, 2009

The Unit and The Twin

JR found a copy of The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist at the bookstore and after reading a page knew I would love it. It's a dystopic novel originally written in Swedish -- no, not particularly promising, since I don't go out of my way to read dystopia fiction or books in translation. But what got me was the voice: it is intimate, confessional, reserved, and rigorous. Let me tell you, I fall for that stuff. And the premise: a woman is taken from her home to live in what appears to be a giant shopping mall, but which is actually an organ bank where "dispensible" people live out their last days. Literary crack!

I read the book in a couple of sittings and wish I'd made it last longer. Oh, well. Unlike so many books I've read recently that start brilliantly, this one fulfilled its promise; it's intelligent, thoughtful, strange, beautiful, and utterly unputdownable.

Lately I have been enjoying many things Scandinavian: the poetry of Malena Morling (though she writes in English, she herself is Swedish); the music of Sigur Ros and Mum; craft books like Simple Sewing by Lotta Jansdotter; the work of Tove Jansson; Swedish crime novels. Oh, and of course my IKEA sofa and glogg.

What is it that unites these things? I think it is stylistic clarity and simplicity combined with a rigorous refusal to fall back on cliche. So much of what is simple in America reverts to shorthand: our "simple" music uses the same old handful of chords, our simple crafts the same old cross-stitch patterns, and our simple genre fiction the same old plot structures and flat characters.

I also want to mention Gerbrand Bakker's The Twin, which was translated from the Dutch. The Netherlands isn't Scandinavia, but this book shares an alluring clarity of style. However, the story itself is much slower and requires much more patience: a bachelor farmer deals with the fallout of his twin brother's death many years before. The story depends on the slow accretion of event and detail, and it reminded me very much of Ha Jin's Waiting -- while reading both books I found myself wishing things would get rolling already, but in retrospect saw that the stories were about things not happening. Anyway, it's an excellent novel with a happy, breakaway ending.


jrlennon said...

I am reading The Unit now, and I think that its voice has a lot in common with yours...perhaps that's why you felt so at home in it.

It's really good so far!

rmellis said...

Are you saying I'm a narcissist?

So what if I am!

jrlennon said...

God you're so full of yourself to think that's what I meant.

OK, so, just finished The Unit and wow, what an incredible novel. Interestingly, the ending is very similar to the ending of my last book...maybe I'm the narcissist...

Matt said...

Funny - just about finished "Night Work" by Thomas Glavinic, which you recommended a while back...and now you've got me hooked on the premise of The Unit. Stop it! Why can't you be like everyone else and review yet another collection of John Updike stories?

jrlennon said...

Ha! It's true, we have been high on dystopias lately.