He knew the same inevitable truth I did but was too caught up in his own prestige and pride to do anything about it…too comfortable in his new life to risk any of it with something as trivial as the truth.”—From Unfit, by Karma Chesnut
Once in a while, I read a book that stays in my thoughts long after I finish it. This isn’t because the story is especially entertaining, or clever, or written well (though it usually is all these things.) It’s because of the reflections it stirs in me. Karma Chesnut’s dystopian novel Unfit was one of these books.
Unfit was not an easy read. There were days I couldn’t put it down, and days I couldn’t pick it up. Not because it wasn’t engaging, but because the content, characters, and setting were so heart-wrenching, I had to be in the right frame of mind to consume it. I realize this confession may discourage some from reading the book, so hear me out.
I believe the purpose of literature isn’t just to entertain and provide a pleasant escape, or deliver warm, fuzzy feelings. Yes, the feel-good stories are fun and I love them, but in the end, books should make us think. They should push us to analyze and question our world, even confuse us as to what the right solution could be—because life is like that. The problems we face do not have clear solutions, as much as we want them to. And quality literature impels us to reflect on these inequalities and discrepancies.
I had a phenomenal English teacher in high school who loved the classics, and she inspired in me an appreciation for them as well. The tragic ones with unsettled endings stuck with me the most: To Kill a Mockingbird, Ethan Frome, 1984, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, My Name is Asher Lev, The Grapes of Wrath, Crime and Punishment, and Gone with the Wind, to name a few. These books caused me to question my positions, to wrestle with my thoughts, to grieve and mourn. After I graduated from college and could read what I wished, I devoured many classics. I have read more of this literature than I have of contemporary bestsellers or even the YA fiction that I write.
I understand not everyone is drawn to these heavy classics, and at times I avoid them as well. The stories can add more depth to our darkness if we’re depressed or facing other challenges. However, most of us would agree we shouldn’t shun books about the Holocaust or other painful parts of history because they’re hard to read. What makes novels invaluable, however, is they can teach similar lessons without the resulting pain of knowing the events actually happened.
Unfit is at the level of these classics. Is it heavy? Extremely. Depressing? At times. Easy to read? Not always. But will the story impact your life? Yes.
I found myself rooting for John, the main character, who is profoundly brilliant and talented but can’t make a better life for himself because of the caste system he was born into. I adored Morgan, his wife, who sacrifices her life of privilege for the man she loves and recognizes what will bring her true joy, and follows it. I developed a sacred reverence for Buck, who protects the defenseless and guards his humanity while everyone around him succumbs to cruel and vicious tendencies. And I have a special place in my heart for Tim, who reminds me of many loved ones with special needs, including my own son.
I haven’t read any other novels about eugenics. I’m sure there are great ones out there. The topic is disturbing, especially when we learn there was a time in our history (the early 20th century) when it became a powerful force in politics and policy, with horrific, inhumane consequences. Could these ideas resurface again? YES. They are happening now, in a subtler way, as we experience a pandemic around the world. Ultimately, the objective behind eugenics is mandating who deserves to live and procreate. It argues, at what point does quality of life and the greater good take precedence over human life? Do we value what the elderly, the disabled, and the terminally ill have to offer? What about those with mental or physical challenges? Do we recognize how they bring about compassion, awareness, and tolerance in our world? If Covid-19 becomes so widespread that we must choose who lives or dies, what apathy and desensitization will that induce? Do we truly value life—every human life? What if this is inconvenient and causes us to lose our jobs, our comforts, or our way of life? This includes abortion. Because respecting life means defending it in every phase, and once we make exceptions, we stand on the edge of a very slippery slope.
Unfit was not easy to read, but it wasn’t meant to be. The book wouldn’t fulfill its purpose and potential if it was. Its powerful themes remind me why I believe what I do, why I defend and cling to principles of humanity, life, and love. For this, I will place it on the shelf alongside my favorite, enduring, life-changing classics.