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Young adult author Neal Shusterman masters black humor in 'Unwind'

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Unwind by Neal Shusterman

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Neal Shusterman's novel "Unwind" appeals to teens with an abnormal interest in disturbing subject matter, otherwise known as dissected dying. Or is it the vagaries of life that fascinate?

"When does life begin?" its cast of adolescent characters ask.
"If more people could admit they really don't know, maybe there never would have been a Heartland War," offers protagonist and anti-hero Connor Lassiter.

Shusterman masters the satirical in his dystopic novel, wrapping technicalities of current abortion debate with teenage angst.

In Connor's study of history, the Second Civil War in the United States has been fought over abortion; wide division over the answer to When life begins sparked a blood battle. To satisfy both sides, a compromise was crafted: all babies must be birthed, but parents have a right to unwind them when they achieve their teens.

To unwind means to methodically dismantle and donate 99.44% of their child's body as transplanted surgical parts, not truly aborting them, but relinquishing parental responsibility from that moment forward.

“I was never going to amount to much anyway, but now, statistically speaking, there’s a better chance that some part of me will go on to greatness somewhere in the world. I’d rather be partly great than entirely useless,” rationalizes Samson Ward, ward of the state, as he heads to unwind camp.

Wordnet defines black humor as “the juxtaposition of morbid and farcical elements to give a disturbing effect.”

The necessary justification of a Samson Ward headed toward his dismantling reflects such cynicism.

Though there are more disturbed moments. Connor’s parents have decided to unwind him, but have yet to tell him their decision. He stumbles on the truth and responds with smoldering contempt:

“... he found a certain power in knowing his parent’s secret. Now the blows he could deal them were so much more effective. Like the day he brought flowers home for his mother and she cried for hours. Like the B+ he brought home on a science test. Best grade he ever got in science. He handed it to his father, who looked at it, the color draining from his fare. ‘See Dad, my grades are getting better. I could even bring my science grade up to a A by the end of the semester.’ An hour later his father was sitting in a chair, still clutching the test in his hand, and staring blankly at the wall.”

Gotta love that kid! He expresses meaning through action and words that normally signify the opposite, i.e., he applies intense irony to his situation.

Here's another example of black humor:

“If I’m unwound,” says Hayden, “I want my eyes to go to a photographer—one who shoots supermodels. That’s what I want these eyes to see.”
“My lips will go to a rock star,” says Connor.
“These legs are definitely going to the Olympics.”
“My ears to an orchestra conductor.”
“My stomach to a food critic.”
“My bicepts to a body builder.”

The scene may be offensive to some and is decidedly graphic in nature, suiting the Urban Dictionary’s definition of black humor. Such macabre effects are funny for both cast and readers.

The ultimate example of dark- even cruel- humor however, is found in Chapter 60’s Harvest scene. Again, the Urban Dictionary shares, “… verbally describing a horrible incident in graphic, long winded detail can be found funny in itself.”

Consider this horrific moment: an anonymous kid being surgically unwound:

“He feels a sharp pinprick in the right side of his neck, and then in the left side.
“’What’s that?’
“’That,’ says the nurse, ‘is the only pain you’ll be feeling today.’
“’This is it, then,’ (x) says. ‘You’re putting me under?’
“Although he can’t see her mouth beneath her surgical mask, he can see the smile in her eyes.
“’Not at all,’ she says. ‘By law, we’re required to keep you conscious through the entire procedure.’ The nurse takes his hand. ‘You have a right to know everything that’s happening to you, every step of the way.’”

Evidently readers have a similar right. Step by step, hour after hour, parts come off. Readers are privy to it all:

“Two hours, five minutes.
“’Blink twice if you can hear me.’
Blink, blink.
“’You’re being very brave.’
“He tries to think of other things, other places, but his mind keeps being drawn back to this place. Everyone’s so close around him now. Yellow figures lean all around him like flower petals closing in. Another section of the table is taken away…”

Merriam-Webster defines black humor as, “humor marked by the use of morbid, ironic, grotesquely comic episodes.” Neal Shusterman has achieved its mastery in a novel both monstrous and penetrating.

“Unwind” may be set in the future, but the issues it addresses transcend time. Its place in middle school English curricula is justified beyond citing stellar examples of dark humor. “Unwind” raises poignant discussions over and above, “When does life begin?” It considers:

  • When is war justified?
  • Why might a person choose to become a Clapper (suicide bomber)?
  • Why might a dictator behave as he does (backstory)?

And perhaps most telling, Will sixteen year old girls ever change? “She’s such a slave to fashion,” Connor observed of his girlfriend Ariana, “always getting the newest pigment injection the second it’s in style.”

Shusterman's novel earns a rating of 97/100-- a bit lower than perfection considering contemporary references that take readers out of the novel, i.e., “They blew up an Old Navy in the North Akron Mall.” As if there might be an Old Navy or even a Mall following some futuristic Heartland War.

The movie “Unwind” is slated for release by Constantin Films in 2015. Casting does not appear to be complete, as yet.

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