Reposting to include Marion’s new review.
Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
In the near future, an insomnia epidemic has struck the United States. It’s caused by a dysfunction in orexin and those who acquire it can’t sleep. Eventually, they die. But there is a therapy that can help prolong life and, in some cases, even cure people. Donors can contribute sleep to those afflicted with the disorder. Babies make the best donors because their sleep isn’t contaminated by nightmares.
Trish is the top recruiter for a charity organization that finds sleep donors. Her sister died from the disorder and, when she tearfully tells the story to potential donors, she can get many of them to sign up. When she discovers a baby who turns out to be a rare universal sleep donor, Trish works with the baby’s parents to keep them on board. Baby A’s mother is happy to contribute, but the father is protective and resents the amount of sleep that is being siphoned off of his daughter.
When Trish finds out that her boss, who she thought was altruistic, is actually profiting from Baby A’s sleep, she has an ethical dilemma. She knows that her organization saves lives but, if she reports his behavior, the scandal will destroy the charity, and people will die.
Karen Russell’s novella Sleep Donation, which was originally published as an online e-book in 2014, is beautifully written. The premise is interesting and it deals with themes of greed, exploitation, and unintended consequences. I wished for more of a sense of closure, though.
Illustrated and audio versions of Sleep Donation were released in September 2020. I listened to Random House Audio’s version which was masterfully narrated by Allyson Ryan. It’s 4.25 hours long.
When I read Kat’s review of this novella, I didn’t immediately twig to the fact that the author was Karen Russell — the Karen Russell. MacArthur Genius Grant Karen Russell, Swamplandia! Karen Russell. I planned to read it based on Kat’s review, and because I liked the idea of examining the “flip side” of Nancy Kress’s award-winning novella Beggars in Spain, which deals with people genetically altered to become sleepless.
It was immediately clear that Sleep Donation is a different, stranger tale, more personally idiosyncratic and surreal, less interested in the sociopolitical and socioeconomic changes the pandemic of insomnia brings, more interested in the deep changes to the human psyche. Sleep Donation gives us a well-developed world with a deeply developed systemic problem, but the story is about one woman, Trish Edgewater, an expert in “recruiting” people who aren’t infected to donate their sleep, which can be turned into a medicine and given as a treatment to the insomniacs.
Trish’s involvement with a newborn, “Baby A” who seems to be a universal donor for untroubled sleep (the first universal donor ever located) leads her to uncover irregularities in the non-profit company she works for… irregularities that seem to be unethical at least. Meanwhile, the parents of Baby A are split on their thinking and the father wants to withdraw his daughter from the program. He says, rightly, that no one knows what the withdrawal of sleep from his daughter will do to her in the future. The mother, however, believes this is a good, right thing to be doing. Trish is caught in the middle, more conflicted after her discovery and her internal struggle to determine what is the right thing to do.
The story is deep and thought-provoking, but what stayed with me was the surreality of the insomniac world. Russell conceives of a machine that literally sucks sleep out of people; there is talk of “blends” of sleep, much the way vintners speak of varietal blends, or coffee roasters of blends of beans. “Pure” sleep is nightmare free, and the urgency of the story is enhanced when an unwitting sleep donor unleashes a second outbreak, this one of nightmares. While Trish struggles with her conscience, the reader sees an ominous sleep-clinic and a strange night-carnival where the sleepless hang out. The tone of the story captures the weird, off-balance way life feels when you haven’t slept for many hours or are awake and moving around in the middle of your night.
Trish is maddening and completely understandable. Her strength as a recruiter is that the loss of her sister to sleeplessness is as raw in the present as if it just happened; her irritating strength as a character is that, wanting to keep her job, she will nearly never stand up to her two strange bosses, brothers who liquidated their highly successful plumbing supply business (people call them the Toilet Brothers) to form this non-profit sleep clinic. These two are iconic Russell characters, and for a long time, Trish is frozen and mute in front of them, even when she learns what they’ve done.
Kat mentions that there wasn’t much of a sense of closure for her. For me, the resolution of the story is personal. Trish makes a decision. The reader never sees the result of the decision. For me, it was enough that this deeply internal character, who has been “stuck” through most of the story, finally acted on a choice.
The 2020 Vintage Contemporary Edition of Sleep Donation features dreamy, surreal black and white illustrations by ALE+ALE. These images add to the seductive strangeness of Russell’s thought-experiment. Beautiful writing and flashes of dry humor make this strange story a compelling read, with lots left over to think about.