After a brief and mildly unintentional two-week break, I am back in action, and ready to talk about sleep.
My first tour with Karen Russell wasn’t that long ago; I read Swamplandia! (exclamation point included, like Yahoo!), her debut novel, back in September, and enjoyed its eerie blend of oddball setting and vaguely supernatural plot (bonus fact: the book was shortlisted for the Pulitzer in 2012). I also loved the concept: a struggling family-run alligator-themed amusement park in the Florida Everglades—whose chief attraction is a one-woman “I swim with gators!” show—comes upon hard times that try its quirky owners. Like a Geek Love/Big Fish/Heart of Darkness mash-up (jungles! ghosts! competing theme parks!), Swamplandia! had a lot to offer, and Russell’s ability to turn a phrase is impressive, even when some of the novel’s more fantastical moments failed to enthrall me.
Unlike Swamplandia!, Sleep Donation—a novella released on Amazon in March—rests not on its location, but on its concept: a hypothetical future America plagued by an epidemic of incurable insomnia. Unable to sleep, people are legit dying, which is why Trish—whose younger sister died from insomnia—finds herself employed as a leading recruiter for Slumber Corps, a nonprofit that collects and distributes donated sleep to those in need. Led by a wealthy brother duo, Slumber Corps is a last defense against the nationwide insomnia epidemic, and Trish believes in its mission wholeheartedly—until she is forced to contend with two opposing forces: “Donor Y,” the unidentified source of a viral nightmare; and “Baby A,” an infant universal donor whose sleep might hold the cure.
While Sleep Donation is “about” sleep, and Russell goes to great lengths to imagine a country whose residents are truly suffering from mass insomnia, sleep also proves an apt introduction to the societal ills referenced whenever a country’s residents suffer from mass anything. In the beginning, “Many people dismissed the disorder as an exaggeration of a universal American condition. Who was sleeping enough? Nobody!” Later, pundits proclaim that sleep was “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.” Even for Trish, champion of the cause, sleep donation is just a manifestation of the the human condition. “I’m afraid that working for the Corps might be irreversibly perverting the way I evaluate human exchanges,” she muses. “Now who is the donor, the donee? I’ll wonder, watching a high school couple kiss at the mall. Are they a match? Will their transfusion be a success?”
As a fully realized novella, Sleep Donation is good, but not great. The concept sustains the first third of the story, and the language the rest, though—as with Swamplandia!—Russell lost me during some of the more abstract moments. As a main character, Trish is sometimes difficult to understand, and always (quite purposefully, on Russell’s part) morally ambiguous. It is in many ways her struggle to delineate between the good and the “greater good” that defines the story itself.
And again, Russell has moments, little nuggets of prose that feel almost wasted on someone as otherwise opaque as Trish. “Death’s dress rehearsal is ongoing at any bus stop in America,” she says at one point, “where sick people beg us not for minutes of sleep, but for metallic dollar-flakes, wealth dandruff. Long before the sleep crisis, our downtown was a maze of sidewalk asylums.” Even a brief reflection on her sister has quiet impact: “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.”
Whether or not I live for her style—I find myself drawn to magic or realism, less the combination—Russell is a force to be reckoned with. She has the undeniable ability to hook you, to create a time or a place that in and of itself takes you away from whatever you’re doing (riding the subway, munching Pringles, laying in bed) and plops you down in the middle of her custom universe. She’s a deft layer of narrative groundwork, and a skilled linguist. If Sleep Donation is the authorly equivalent of a brain fart (which is what I would rename the “Kindle Singles” concept, given my druthers), then we all have much to look forward to from Russell in the future. Full-on, Pulitzer-worthy brain poops.
TITLE: Sleep Donation
AUTHOR: Karen Russell
ALSO WROTE: Swamplandia!, Vampires in the Lemon Grove
SORTA LIKE: Swamplandia! meets The Age of Miracles
FIRST LINE: “The siren goes, and we code for dispatch.”