Sleep Donation: A Novella
Call me petty, but I was troubled by the exclamation point in Karen Russell’s SWAMPLANDIA! Oh, no, another young ironist, I thought. And when her story collection VAMPIRES IN THE LEMON GROVE came out, I wondered, Is this an effort to pop-culturize her work with a “True Blood” slant? All this to explain why, up until now, I hadn’t read Russell, despite her fame (recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, Pulitzer Prize finalist, and one of the New Yorker’s “20 under 40”). But when I saw the blurb for SLEEP DONATION, her first eBook original, I couldn’t resist. I like to read when I can’t drop off, and the combination of insomnia and dystopia looked promising.
It did not put me to sleep. Good Lord, this woman can write! Admirably economical (110 pages), SLEEP DONATION unrolls as seamlessly as a richly patterned carpet under moonlight, quickly establishing a lush nighttime atmosphere (most of the action seems to take place after dark) and a strong narrative voice.
That voice belongs to one Trish Edgewater, who at first functions mainly as our jaunty, sardonic guide to the sleeplessness crisis. As the book opens, the Americas --- not, so far, the rest of the world --- are nine years into an epidemic of (ultimately fatal) insomnia. The REM sleep deficit is particularly high in Trish’s hometown, a city in Pennsylvania: “It is a special kind of homelessness…to be evicted from your dreams,” Trish says, quoting the mayor, then adds a cynical postscript: “I believe [he] is both genuinely concerned for his insomniac constituency, and also pandering to a powerfully desperate new voting block.”
The media reacts predictably. Russell nails the “weird relish” of TV pundits, “professional Cassandras” who cite a laundry-list of possible causes, from 24-hour news cycles to environmental pollution to the violation of our own circadian rhythms. They predict an apocalypse in which, unless science finds a way to synthesize a substitute, sleep will become extinct --- and so will humanity. Trish mocks these dire pronouncements, dubbing them “the dread-crescendo,” yet she uses the fear they generate in her own work. Scientists, you see, have devised a machine that can draw sleep from one person and transfuse it to another. Trish, a “recruiter,” persuades those still able to sleep to supply those who can’t: At night a Sleep Van appears at donors’ homes to siphon off the zzzs.
"Russell’s novella is concise and gripping --- never a boring moment or wasted sentence --- and Trish’s narration, by turns sarcastic and tender, is riveting."
Trish’s employer is the nonprofit Slumber Corps, and she works out of a “Mobi-Office” consisting of six interlocking trailers in a vacant downtown lot (nobody wants to admit the insomnia crisis is permanent). She is the star performer in the campaigns known as Sleep Drives, using her grief over the death of her 20-year-old sister, Dori (the 14th recorded fatality in the United States, she perished before sleep-donation technology had been developed), to lure donors to the cause. “What distinguishes me as a recruiter… is that my sister’s death is evergreen for me, a pure shock, the freshest outrage. I don’t have to dig around with the needle; that vein is open on the surface.”
Her biggest coup is to have corralled the six-month-old daughter of Felix and Justine Harkonnen --- the name is surely an homage to one of the rival houses in Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic, DUNE --- known as Baby A (all sleep donors are anonymous). Baby A’s is the purest sleep on the planet, not only nightmare-free (donors are screened for sleep-related anomalies the way blood donors are for disease) but universally effective (“No body rejects a transfusion of her sleep”). In fact, her donations prove to be the only cure for a hideous and highly infectious nightmare transmitted to thousands of patients by a man known as Donor Y.
Donor Y’s nightmare causes a crisis in the Slumber Corps. Paranoia sweeps the land as former donors grow reluctant to give sleep (what if they too transmit nightmares?), and insomniacs loath to receive it (what if I’m getting a dose of terror?). “Ratings spike. Panic strikes.”
Under these circumstances, the Harkonnens’ cooperation and Trish’s recruiting are more crucial than ever. But Mr. H., always ambivalent, turns fiercely protective of his daughter, and as the pressure builds and sleep shortages rise, Trish herself starts to have doubts about her role (“I need a faith-transfusion”). “I hate that I’m always scaring everyone,” she says. “Bullying them into giving.”
Trish evolves. Smart-mouthed yet basically compliant --- even sex, for her, is an exercise in efficiency; she cites “the self-eradicating bliss of servicing and being serviced, all at once” --- she becomes, by the story’s end, far more subversive. She starts to remember the real Dori, beautiful and brilliant, who has virtually been erased by the image of a dying martyr that Trish uses in her pitches. She no longer relives her sister’s horrific last day in order to attract donors; instead, she describes who Dori was before the crisis. The new approach is a disaster; her stats go way down.
By then, however, Trish has also become increasingly skeptical about the safety of sleep donations (is she lying to the public?) and the dubious ethics of exploiting a child (at one point, she describes the Sleep Van as “a boxy white shark waiting in the shallows to feast upon a baby”). And when she discovers accidentally that one of her bosses has misused Baby A’s donations --- an act that could threaten the very existence of the Slumber Corps --- her conscience is strained to the limit.
Russell’s novella is concise and gripping --- never a boring moment or wasted sentence --- and Trish’s narration, by turns sarcastic and tender, is riveting. I was especially captured by the contrast between the hushed, clinical atmosphere of the Sleep Vans, surrounded by the night-blooming white flowers of early spring, and the creepy carnival atmosphere of Night World, a sea of tents, speakeasies and hucksters on the edge of town where insomniacs go after sundown. Each, in its own way, is chilling.
My only disappointment was the ending, which I found too ambiguous, almost unfinished. I understand Russell not wanting a pat tie-up, but I needed more resolution (or maybe I just wished the novella would turn into a full-fledged novel so that I could find out what happened next).
I can tell you this: When, in the future, I am up nights, I will certainly be dipping into SWAMPLANDIA! and Russell’s two short-story collections. She is that good.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on March 28, 2014