There's been a wave of fiction about an insomnia epidemic, as if some collective anxiety is bubbling up. Most recently, Kenneth Calhoun's Black Moon freaked us out. But Karen Russell's new novella "Sleep Donation" is still something pretty unique: a look at people in the nonprofit sector, struggling with insoluble ethics.
Very minor spoilers ahead...
In "Sleep Donation," tons of people are suffering from an inability to sleep that can turn deadly. But unlike in Calhoun's book and some others, there's a treatment, that actually works. Those who can still sleep can donate sleep to those who can't, and it actually helps — some people only need one sleep transfusion and then they're able to sleep unaided afterwards. The whole thing is very much like donating blood, and then receiving a transfusion, down to the van that goes around collecting sleep from donors.
The story's main character, Trish, is a volunteer for the sleep center, who mostly recruits new donors by tell the tragic story of Trish's sister, Dori, who died of insomnia before there was any treatment. And thanks to Trish's efforts, they've found one donor who's way better than the rest: a small baby named Baby A, who's a "universal donor" for insomniacs. Only Baby A can cure absolutely everybody.
"Sleep Donation" seems kind of trivial at first, almost lulling you into a sense of security that Russell then starts chipping away. The first few chapters are full of infodumps, long expository passages that lard information and bits of backstory onto the reader with the minimum of grace. This is partly the price that Russell pays for starting in media res, but it also feels like the work of someone who hasn't read enough genre fare to understand that worldbuilding can be teased out.
But once Russell has formed a complete picture of her world, she starts to get more and more inventive with it. The bare details of how the donations work and why Baby A is the perfect donor give way to a frenzy of extrapolation, the kind that marks out the best science fiction. Russell comes up with enough second- and third-order effects of her web of insomniacs and donors to make the whole thing feel both real and ferociously bizarre. By the time she really starts spinning out her plot in earnest, the whole thing carries you away not unlike a frenzied dream.
Russell's novella is only available as an ebook, for reading online or on your device via the new company Atavist Books, and reading this story on a tablet or phone screen just adds to the sense of alienation, the ghostly glow like a nightlight that keeps you awake.
Russell's tone and somewhat sardonic jibes are definitely reminiscent of George Saunders' satirical tales about people caught in the gears of terrible machines. Compromised individuals and middle-managers spouting dreadful jargon. But her satire is nowhere near as sharp, or as Kafkaesque, as Saunders'. The humor, if anything, is often the weakest part of "Sleep Donation," like when she describes Trish's bosses, the Storch Brothers, who made their money selling luxury toilets with slogans about shitting on a Storch. The irony and satire feels forced, especially in comparison to Russell's masterful ability to conjure strangeness and queasiness.
And "queasy" is the right word — where Calhoun created a terrifying sense of people who were trapped in a waking dream, Russell instead leaves you feeling as though her characters are sleepwalking on the bottom of the ocean. Her imagery and knack for a weird turn of phrase are unparalleled (Baby A was formed in her mother's womb, inside "a tidaling generosity") and she makes the sleep donation process itself feel both like magic and weird science, all at once:
I don't know how to describe the unique claustrophobia of a sleep draw, if you've never been present for one, except to compare it to the electric, heavy feeling of air carrying seawater. A frightening, exhilarating charge permeates the entire atmosphere of the Sleep Van; an overpowering sense of ambient destiny, fate crushing in on all sides. This accompanied by a nostril-flaring, neck-prickling vertigo. What provokes this disorientation, says Dr. Peebles, is your body's awareness of its proximity to an enveloping illusion — a dream, not your own, pumping out of donor's prone form. The unhosted ghosts of these dreams in transit, en route to facilities where they will be tested, processed, plated on ice, awaiting transfusion. World-blueprints. Roberta, according to our monitors, is discharging a shocking quantity of dreams. They go soaking out of her mouth and snaking through the breathing tubes, a galaxy per millisecond. The nurses claim not to notice the smell any more, a clay odor you can almost taste, which reminds me of the white frogs we used to net from midnight ponds, the scooped and dripping lilies.
Minutes four through eight, as the coils begin to heat: the child's fantasy is in the room with us, unexpressed as in any consciousness. Her dreams glug out of her. At the end of the draw, the machinery makes a fantastic chortle, a sort of mechanical blech, and one nurse, Louisa, who is very uncomfortable with child donation, giggles hysterically and says, "Pardon me!"
So Russell doesn't have the savagery of George Saunders here, and her organization isn't nearly as faceless or terrible as his often are. But what she has, instead, is a fantastical quality that makes the eventual knife-twist that much more brutal.
Trish is a great recruiter of sleep donors because she tells the story of her dead sister — and it becomes a kind of weird exchange, Trish's awful story in exchange for the sleep of babies. The ghost of Dori lives inside Trish, growing stronger as Trish pimps her tragedy out. In a way, the pimping of Dori becomes part of how we understand that Trish is losing her soul for a worthy cause, getting people to risk their children's health to save strangers. But as the complications start to unfold and Baby A becomes more and more vital to everyone, the dead girl becomes an increasingly slippery counterweight to the living one.
And Trish's relationship with Baby A's parents, the over-eager mother and the bitterly reluctant father, becomes more fascinating and disturbing as the story goes along — it's vivid and weird, and unlike any relationship I've seen in fiction in a long, long time.
In the end, "Sleep Donation" uses its sleep crisis as a spring board to talk about vastly different issues, including how we tend to overtax scarce resources. And how any enterprise, even a worthy cause, can start to feel like a nightmarish evil corporation when people are willing to make wretched decisions to get results. Everything, Russell hints, can come to seem like a transaction, or donation: sleep, sex, kindness, even remorse and loathing.