REVIEW: Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Karen Russell is weird. I mean that as the highest form of praise, of course. She’s mastered the art of the bizarre so thoroughly in her previous work that her foray into a quasi-dystopian,” sci-fi-lite” story doesn’t only seem natural, I was surprised she had yet to cover that territory. In her e-novella, Sleep Donation, released on March 25th by the newly-launched Atavist Books,
America is plagued by an insomnia crisis.
Readers with sleep troubles, myself included, can breathe a sigh of relief that our unwilling propensity to stay awake all hours of the night hasn’t gotten so bad that it can kill us. In Sleep Donation, those who have fallen prey to the epidemic — “orexins” — can seek relief from the fatal illness through the Slumber Corps, an organization that tracks down healthy sleepers and urges them to donate their dreams to the less fortunate.
Star recruiter, Trish Edgewater, knows exactly how to get what she needs from donors. Her elder sister, Dori, was among the first handful of people to die from the insomnia plague. Whenever Trish begins telling the story of Dori’s untimely demise, she breaks down in tears and donors are practically lining up to give. Her most valuable recruit is Baby A (by way of the child’s mother’s heartstrings), an infant with pure, perfect sleep who can donate universally. Baby A is the country’s savior when a mysterious Donor Y unleashes a sinister strain of nightmares that worsens the plague; this disturbs the baby’s father, who’s always felt that his child was being taken advantage of.
Russell excels at creating solitary, profoundly-damaged female narrators who are singularly-focused, almost obsessively so
, and Trish is no exception. Her sister’s passing, though it happened nearly a decade before, is the defining aspect of her life. She’s tragically burdened by Dori’s death, and yet it’s the very thing that makes her so good at her job. Trish is keenly self-aware when musing on a grief so intense, it seems to manifest itself physically: “Sometimes I think the right doctor could open my chest and find her there, my sister, frozen inside of me, like a face in a locket.”
Trish is rattled with doubts about her altruism, at one point even likening her use of her sister’s death to obtain more donors with the epidemic: “Thanks to my efforts, millions of people are infected with Dori’s last breath.” As Trish examines the moral quandaries of her job, and eventually discovers unsavory details about the Slumber Corps, the reader is confronted with a larger societal question about countless charities: At what point does manipulating emotions to acquire support veer into exploitation?
Readers who delight in the more peculiar and surreal will enjoy the sequence that takes place in one of the “Night Worlds,” a camp on the outskirts of town. The place has a seedy, underbelly vibe; it’s where orexins gather to indulge in black market remedies. Trish visits and shells out for a drink, even though she’s not afflicted, and is offered a plot of dirt to fall asleep on. At a price, of course. The reader is suddenly jerked out of the fantastical surroundings we’ve been immersed in and faced with Trish’s straightforward opinion: “America’s great talent, I think, is to generate desires that would never have occurred, natively, to a body like mine, and to make those desires so painfully real that money becomes fiction, an imaginary means to some concrete end.”
That’s precisely what makes Russell’s brand of magical realism so effective. As with her books, the tone and language in
Sleep Donation is so deliberate and well-crafted that it provides a framework for any and all things outlandish.
The reader is guided along by prose so intimately conversational and frank that we feel for Trish, taking her opinions to heart; and find even the most otherworldly parts of the storyline entirely plausible. In Sleep Donation, Russell once again proves herself to be a master storyteller: she is the type of author who can effortlessly convince readers to suspend our disbelief and invest in a character in a way that many of us haven’t done since we were children listening to a bedtime story.
To purchase Sleep Donation, click here to visit Atavist’s website.