Skip to Content

Atavist Books
March 25, 2014. 110 pages.

The Insomnia Crisis that permeates Karen Russell’s Sleep Donation is already pumping vigorously through the story in the opening pages, but it quickly begins to spread. Insomnia is akin to a zombie plague, but for those readers who are too familiar with endless hours of restless sleep or have experienced jet lag that sucks melatonin to abysmally low levels will find similarities to the horror in Russell’s new traipse, which takes us into a hypnagogic world petering on disaster. Perhaps, the familiarity is what makes it all so frightening.

Trish Edgewater lives in this world. She is a recruiter for Slumber Corps, a non-profit tasked with replenishing those ravaged by the Insomnia Crisis. Trish sees some of the worst of the “dream bankruptcy” in the unnamed Pennsylvania city where she works, but other places are hurting even more, especially Florida, with the highest rate of new cases hampered by steep budget cuts prescribed by the governor. Her commitment toward easing the crisis comes from memories of Dori, her older sister, one of the first to succumb to what would become an international pandemic. Those afflicted suffer both at night, when they are meant to be peacefully slumbering, and during the day, when their energy is seeping out of them.

If you’ve stayed awake for more than 24 hours, you know about the hallucinatory visions that pop up before your eyes to taunt you into questioning your own sanity. Multiply this by an obscenely high number and you have the contagion of Sleep Donation. Like the minutes being counted down on an insomniac’s alarm clock, Russell clearly outlines the toll it takes on Dori, who “died awake, after twenty days, eleven hours, and fourteen minutes without sleep. Locked flightlessly inside her skull.” I’m sure even long-haul truckers shiver at the thought.

The insomniacs of Sleep Donation can only rely on transfusions from healthy sleep donors who agree to be milked of their happy, nightmare-free sleep. Everything appears to be on the mend when a healthy universal donor coded Baby A is found. Of course, there wouldn’t be much of a story if everything was neatly solved. A resilient new strain of the Insomnia Crisis wreaks havoc, panic sweeps across the world, and the temporary respite found in Baby A wanes for various reasons.

Everything feels oddly familiar. There a litany of news articles that abound today about the detrimental effects of looking at too many blue-light emitting screens during night hours and what problems that can have on our sleep patterns. Trish even points to crying Luddites that blame the crisis on a lack of “true darkness.”

Yet, the entirety of Russell’s novella isn’t a black and white allegory of red eyes and unkempt beds. There is plenty of room for colorful corners painted with grotesque strokes. For instance, it wouldn’t be America without an underground black market teeming with outlandish concoctions advertised to ease our sleepless bodies.

Known for the magical tinge of her previous work, especially her 2006 debut St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Russell is tip-toeing into the realm of science fiction. Is this an alternate reality or a frightening, yet possible nightmare of the near future? A new mental illness as a result of “sleep anorexia” and communicable nightmares are just a few examples of the vocabulary that describes a society where sleep is an endangered species.

The layers of the novella become richer when Trish is dragged into the black market world of sleep remedies where insomniacs gather with hopes of one extra wink of sleep. She is brought along into the carnival of Night World, which is an illicit gathering of merchants that is weaved in bright colors and “located at the exit for the old fairgrounds, which have been converted into a midnight solarium.” Expensive cures are hocked (ones that are different and sexier than the medicinal answers the Slumber Corps provides). Trendy cocktails spiked with hopeful serums wash down the throats of the gaunt sufferers of the crisis. The absurdity of it all is made even clearer when Trish delves deeper into the Night World,

“Women wander the poppy fields, in white nightgowns, carrying vessels of water, or some other transparent liquid. In calm, emotionless voices, they begin to halt the unsteady pilgrims and to ask them questions:
‘Would you like a sip of supplemental poppy tea, dear?’
‘Would you like sheets and a pillow? We can sleep you on plot seven, or for forty-five dollars we can upgrade you to plot twelve, directly under the moon…’”

How has the world changed to a place where splurging on a bed mat beneath the moon-filled sky becomes an overpriced luxury or more so, a new age cure for an epidemic that never seems to quell?

Sleep Donation constantly gains momentum. Even with a possible cure, there is no ease. Russell throws more and more inconceivable scenarios, making the reader and the inhabitants of the novel mutually wonder: How long can we live without sleep?

It is easy to categorize Russell’s novella as a metaphor for the overabundance of anxiety in our lives mixed with the little portable devices we use to distract ourselves from said lives, but it is also an enjoyable read. The moments that are most relished are when Trish is acting in the world, opposed to her narrative explaining how our world came to this crisis.

Even when characters deal with serious circumstances, Russell treats us with fantastic detail. When potential donors are asked to fill out a questionnaire beforehand, they are given an alphabetized list of communicable nightmares: abomination (horned), ambulance (frozen yellow siren), attic (grandmother’s ghost), etc. The list is abbreviated and the possibility of Russell making an expanding list for supplemental reading is alluring. It is with these specifics that the author has created something so appealing instead of falling victim to a heavy-handed metaphor. Russell deftly populates Sleep Donation with both the familiar and her own unique creations that are in-step with her previous excursions into the unbelievable.

Karen Russell isn’t busy hampering the reader with lofty arguments about how everyone is overworked and lacking rest. The phrase “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” definitely takes on a different tone in the novella—one that is somehow both funny and wary. As sleep grows more elusive, Trish finds herself in a place filled with bright lights, hidden places, and buried secrets. It might not be a world the reader wants to live in, but taking the trip there certainly is a worthwhile experience.