Karen Russell's Sleep Donation is a tightly written novella that explores the "hydrology of human generosity" in the wake of an epidemic of insomnia. It's set in a near-future North America where sleep banks are being set up in every city so that healthy individuals may donate sleep to people who suffer a fatal inability to switch off—people edging close to insanity.
As the epidemic spreads, media pundits suggest possible causes, some more unlikely than others.
According to these professional Cassandras, sleep has been chased off the globe by our twenty-four-hour news cycle, our polluted skies and crops and waterways, the bald eyeballs of our glowing devices. We Americans are sitting in an electric chair that we engineered. What becomes of our circadian rhythms, the "old, glad harmonies" that leapt through us like the vascular thrust of water through leaves of grass?
Indeed, the insomniacs' dysfunction seems a believable extrapolation from the hyperactive lives we lead in the early twenty-first century.
Philanthropist brothers Rudy and Jim Storch have founded the not-for-profit Slumber Corps and Trish Edgewater is their phenomenally successful recruiter. Early in the epidemic, Trish's sister Dori died in the first wave of casualties, following twenty days, eleven fours, and fourteen minutes without sleep. In her quest to solicit donations, Trish taps into her grief whenever she confronts a member of the public—whether on the doorstep of their home on in a superstore car park. Her sister would still be alive, she implores, if the sleep donation program had started sooner.
What distinguishes me as a recruiter, I'm told by Rudy and Jim, 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.
As her boss Rudy says, "She's like a grief hemophiliac . . . It doesn't clot. It never runs dry."
Russell digs into the complex relationships between charity worker, donor, and donee. "Does it matter if we mean what we say, if the mere fact of the utterance saves lives?" muses Trish.
As the epidemic sweeps across the country, scientists discover that orexin deficiency is the causing the dysfunction, characterized as "untenable hyperarousal." Trish is appealing for donations of NREM, the slow-wave, delta sleep that repairs the body and strengthens its immune system. Some donors are better than others and, eerily, Trish says, "Babies are deep, rich wells for us." A single transfusion will, in a third of insomniacs, restore their natural ability to sleep.
Baby A, the daughter or Justine and Felix Harkonnen, is the miraculous universal donor of pure, nightmare-free sleep. The Harkonnens submit to Trish's persuasion and allow her to extract maximum levels of NREM. From the outset, Felix has misgivings but he bends to Justine's evangelical enthusiasm for the donation program. Though he married Justine for her moral sensitivity it seems "he got more goodness than he bargained for."
Just as, today, we give blood at mobile blood donation centres, in Russell's fictional world Sleep Drives are set up in local neighborhoods at sundown:
Nurses swab out helmets in multiple Vans, preparing to take sleep donations for testing. Administrators sit inside lit tents on suburban lawns, holding clipboards, prescreening donors with an eligibility questionnaire to filter out those whose sleep is prone to nightmares, disturbance. We babble the questions to volunteers under the midnight pines.
"When was your last full night of deep, unbroken sleep, ma'am?"
Baby A's sleep is the most potent source in the US. Other donors' sleep is less pure and their donations are blended for rapid delivery to the widest spectrum of insomniacs. Trish starts to question the pressure she's obliged to put on the Harkonnens: "I hate that I'm always scaring everyone. Bullying them into giving." She feels her entreaties are coming close to extortion.
With 250,000 Americans on the wait-lists for sleep donation, hoards of unemployable and homeless insomniacs are gathering in quasi-legal Night Worlds out on the fringes of most communities. I felt I grasped the author's intent when Trish reflects: "Long before the sleep crisis, our downtown was a maze of sidewalk asylums." Could this remark, and the observations on which it was presumably founded, suggest the original springboard for Russell's novella? It certainly resonated with me; I read this book immediately following a visit to San Francisco and Seattle where I was taken aback by the high number of homeless people with apparent mental health problems.
The tension ratchets up in Russell's novella when a donation of polluted sleep, from Donor Y, infects the blood banks with his terrifying nightmares—so terrifying that when patients receive Donor Y's sleep they are desperate to stay awake. The impact is disastrous because the population reels back in horror from the donation program. We wonder if Donor Y had malicious intent and we subsequently learn that he completed his donor questionnaire "in tiny all-capitals, like a scream shrunken down into a whisper."
And as the story unfolds, Trish begins to doubt her bosses' altruism. She suspects ulterior motives and corruption but she wants to believe in them because it's established early in the story that she feels genuine affection towards Jim, the less abrasive brother, in particular.
He's a mid-sentence self-startler, Jim. "Hiccups of insight," he calls these moments. Whenever my boss is struck dumb by his own epiphanic inner light, I picture a tiny deer jolted out of its grazing with grass in its mouth, paralyzed by the brilliant approach of a Mack truck.
Russell's prose is both rich and taut. A less talented writer could have stretched this story arc to a full-length novel. I'm always grateful when a writer presents a fictional world, characters, and authorial themes with concision and style—a single malt, rather than a generic blend.
Occasionally in passages of dialogue it's unclear who is speaking but I decided against pedantry. My only gripe is that in the novella’s closing pages the tone slips into preachiness as though Russell wants to ram home a whole bunch of messages. I feel the author's voice intrudes too far. By contrast, the singular phrase "sidewalk asylums" is a subtle prompt. This reference to the neglected mentally ill in our societies is a powerful-enough message and one that's highly pertinent to the issue of our donation culture. Surely, one of our best defenses against depression and mental ill-health, in the face of impending global crises, is to take action, however insignificant that action might seem—a blood donation, going vegetarian, switching off those glowing devices.
Anne Charnock's debut dystopian novel A Calculated Life is published by 47North. Her journalism has appeared in New Scientist. She writes about fiction for The Huffington Post and on her blog www.annecharnock.com. Find Anne on Twitter @annecharnock.