Sunday, August 30, 2009

My thoughts on Unwind by Neal Shusterman

For Throwdown Thursday, Lauren at i was a teenage book geek asked whether we preferred Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, or Unwind by Neal Shusterman. I've just read Uglies and my review is here. I read Unwind several months ago after seeing rave reviews all over the blogosphere. I finished it with such a turbulence of feeling that I have been unable to review it. Until I had a good rant at Lauren.

First of all, I'm a pussy. I had to watch Event Horizon and Reservoir Dogs in twenty minute increments. I say "had to" not because someone was making me, but because I was having such a darn good time. I love these films. I was just horrified watching them. Which of course is all part of the fun.

Second of all, I'm a picky bitch when it comes to dystopian works. I am ready to make the most astounding leaps of faith for a narrative, as long as I'm given good enough reason to jump. I am also wary of a writer who seems to be flattering his/her audience.

Lastly, I get unreasonably miffed by books that read like films. Books are not some springboard for getting your ideas onto the silver screen and I hate feeling like they're being used in this way. This definitely comes under the banner "pet peeve" but this is blog and I'll peeve if I want to.

My fundamental problem with Unwind is that I just didn't believe unwinding could be the result of an extrapolation of current circumstances, which is precisely how Shusterman presents it. My difficulty was seeing how unwinding was any sort of compromise between the aims and values of pro-choicers and pro-lifers. Neither group devalues human life already in existence. The difference in ideology lies in where that line is drawn, whether at the very moment of conception, or after a foetus has reached a certain stage in gestation. Then there's the question of whether an unwind is technically alive after dismemberment. The passing of the unwinding Bill is based on the assumption that an unwind is still alive--he or she continues their existence in bits and pieces transplanted or grafted onto others.

I couldn't make these two leaps. To me they just didn't make sense, and I don't think it's my personal ideology getting in the way. I'm a pro-choice athiest and an organ doner, but I don't have any romantic notions about living on in the body of those who receive my parts when I die. I doubt anyone has this notion, though it is a comfort to know that after death you can still do some good in the world. I also believe in the sacredness of the human condition. As an athiest I don't believe in the afterlife, so all that matters to me is this world, my existence here and the people who will exist here after me. And at the other end of Shusterman's spectrum, I have grave doubts that any pro-lifer thinks a teenager will live on in scattered pieces within other people's bodies. Excuse my religious ignorance, but isn't there something in the Bible about being buried whole on consecrated ground to await judgment day? Aren't there Jehovah's Witnesses who refuse even blood transfusions?

The flattery: there's nothing more appealing to teenagers than feeling hard done by. I know I loved to wallow in self pity all the damn time when I was fifteen. No one's had it harder than me. No one trusts me. My family and school and the whole world exists to take away my sense of agency, my freedom, my power. I counted the days until I could finish school and move to the city, and boy was I unbearable in those last few months! My own income, my own home, my own rules were just on the horizon, and I shamelessly rubbed my mother's nose in it.

But back to being fifteen and feeling hard done by. Why do teenagers specifically get unwound? Why between the ages of thirteen and eighteen do children suddenly become second-class citizens, fodder for the organ transplant industry? Sure they're young and healthy and make great doners, but that's hardly a valid justification. Shusterman provides no good reason for why teenagers are the only demographic to be cut up. The only one that I can see is because he is writing for teenagers, and he is tapping into teenagers' feelings of being hard done by. Which is a bloody cheap shot and one I can't respect.

Then there's that scene. How clever of Shusterman to make Roland the central figure, a would-be rapist and a total meat-head. Don't we all want him to suffer, to go away and stop effing everything up? Many people have described this book as emotionally draining, and they're spot on. As a psych graduate I learned a myriad of ways our brains can be reduced to useless grey muck. How different pathologies manifest themselves in brain-damaged individuals. It's fascinating and horrifying at the same time, a combination I find irresistible. But as I said above I can be a total pussy and I have a very definite line. Shusterman crossed my line. To have Roland awake and talking and thinking during the procedure made me want to vomit. He could have been a kitten-torturing paedophile and all I would want to do would be to rescue him, to get him out of there.

And therein lies my quandry. That Shusterman was able to make me react like this is rather delicious, don't you think? I got the same delight from realising that while reading Lolita I was egging Humbert on. I go into this further in Sympathy for the Devil.

So what's my problem? Did I like it or didn't I like it? If I didn't like it, why didn't I just write a negative review and move on? Well, that's what I've been struggling to answer. I think my problem is that Unwind is really quite a good book despite its flaws. Look at all the thinking and struggling I've done over it! Months of confusion and pondering! My gut reaction is NO and AWFUL and GET IT AWAY, by my mind refuses to listen to my body. (On the other hand, reading Twilight gave me the opposite reaction. My body was going all squishy and happy, and my mind was saying, "Bella, you suck." Maybe books should be starred in two ways: your body gives a rating and your mind gives a rating!)

In summary, I liked and I hated Unwind at the same time. Notice I didn't say love, only like. But I tip my hat to you, Neal Shusterman. You've certainly given me a struggle.


  1. I've got this book sitting in an ever-growing pile by my bed. I've heard lovely things about it, and now not-so-lovely from you. Am torn. Will probably read it through on the night before it's due back at the library. If I can stomach it...

    What that all meant was, GREAT POST! Love your thorough and honest reviews.

  2. Very interesting review! I have to agree with you on the amount of suspension of disbelief that Shusterman asks of his readers. It is almost too much. But I found myself enthralled by this story, even the most gruesome parts. I read the part about Roland out loud to my roommate and she was thoroughly skeeved out.

    This is a great post, and I completely understand your conflicting emotions on this one!!

    I really like that book cover over the hard back one. It's so neat!

  3. Thanks so much guys! I tells ya, it's a relief to get it all out of my head and into words. Maybe I'll have some closure now...

  4. This is a great review, thought-provoking and fascinating. I read it earlier and had to go away and think for a bit, and I still can't decide exactly what I think the significance of your extreme reaction is! It's a reaction that I shared on some levels, and I still don't get it. I think you're right re: the fact that you still have strong feelings about this book months after reading it - that must say something about whether it's worth reading.

    I've had really extreme reactions to books / films before that have left me convinced that this is a major part of their art (like the hanging scene in the movie Dancer in The Dark, which left me depressed for days). This tends to be when I'm already pretty impressed for other reasons. I think in the case of Unwind, I wasn't all that impressed to begin with, so although the shockingness of certain scenes stays with me, I can't say I love this book either.

  5. Hmm. I'm going to have to look in to this. I'm not going to lie, I skipped a good majority of the review to avoid anything spoilery, but I saw enough to keep me intrigued...I haven't read anything by Schusterman yet, though I just bought The Schwa Was Here. Loved the Uglies set.

  6. ohh, interesting review. I've been wanting to read this book for awhile and now I'm very intrigued.

  7. Yeah...I really can't see a comprimise like that from current positions either. But I readily suspended disbelief, and thought this was pretty well done.

  8. Well I think I will not read this not another sea saw book, like "The Road". This is a damn good review!

  9. Thanks that means a lot to me Shellie!

  10. Oh gosh. I just read Unwind (prophetically, on the night before it was due back at the library), and I had to come back and visit your review.

    I TOTALLY GET YOU. I finished it and just sat there for a couple of moments, trying to come to grips with it. With everything - characters, ending, the crazy violation of anything I'd ever want to happen in a story...

    Maybe it IS good. If it can make me this confused and weirded out and unsure of how I feel about it...that is a huge reaction. I'll have to respect it. But I'll wait a couple of weeks before I try to review it... :) Again, well done on your review. I feel like you've put most of my reaction into words!

  11. Terrific review -- your views mesh with mine quite well, both on this book and in general. I will have to read more of your reviews in the future.