Sleepless Nightmares

‘Sleep Donation’
In ‘Sleep Donation,’ Baby A provides perfect sleep (Unsplash/Bastien Jaillot).

At the end of September, WNYC’s Radiolab broadcast an episode called “Insomnia Line.” The show kept its phones open from 2 a.m. until sunrise so listeners struggling with sleep could dial in. A nurse called. Then a laid-off teacher. Then a college student. The callers stared up at Mars. They listened to crickets and thunder, a ticking clock and a spinning fan. They had weird thoughts about horse treadmills, mushrooms, and space. They relayed nightmares. They expressed anxieties for job interviews, and grief for dead relatives, and cravings for the alcohol they wanted to drink but couldn’t, because they were getting sober. When the callers left voicemails, they asked the hosts to please call them back.

Radiolab produced this episode in response to our “shadow epidemic,” coronasomnia. Self-reported shut-eye is down, and sleeping-pill prescriptions are up. The epidemic’s causes are tragically obvious: political dread, financial anxieties, muddled routines, blue light, isolation. Of course, we mostly sit up worrying about infection from the actual virus. But insomnia, experts warn, comes with health problems of its own, from weight gain and depression to elevated risks of heart attack and stroke.

In Karen Russell’s sci-fi novella Sleep Donation, newly released in paperback this fall, sleeplessness isn’t a symptom of sickness. Rather, insomnia is the primary pandemic. Sufferers die after weeks awake, with bloodshot eyes, waxy skin, hair gone white, and failed organs. Generous donors give sleep like blood, in drives organized by the nonprofit Slumber Corps. Trish, the novel’s protagonist, recruits volunteers by telling the sad story of her sister, Dori, one of the disease’s early victims. A mother she convinces in a grocery-store parking lot turns out to be a huge get; her child, Baby A, has perfect, pure sleep. An infusion of Baby A’s slumber can cure even the most chronic insomniac. Don’t worry, Trish reassures the baby’s father. They’ll never draw more sleep than the child can give, no matter how badly it’s needed.

All Slumber Corps donors are pre-screened for bad dreams, evaluated with an alphabetized list: “Abomination, horned. Ambulance, frozen yellow siren. Anthill, no queen.” But one night, a contagious nightmare from “Donor Y” taints the world’s sleep supply. Was it an accident? Or an act of bioterrorism? The dream is so tortuous that it’s indescribable. Suddenly, patients who wanted rest are begging to be kept awake, asking to have their eyelids stapled. They’ve become “elective insomniacs,” preferring to die of sleeplessness rather than experience the nightmare again.

Even as it sends shivers down the spine, Sleep Donation offers prescient commentary on the ethics of a public-health crisis.

Sleep Donation is first and foremost a horror story. (Stephen King blurbed it.) Russell’s inventive, high-literary prose is sustained by creepy metaphors and strange syntax. Dori, the sleepless sister, dies of a mind “worn thin by the sound of every cough and the plinking moisture of every raindrop...her mind crushed, in the end, by an avalanche of waking moments.” Women infected by the Donor Y nightmare commit mass suicide by jumping from a bridge, “taking ginger, seaward steps along the black rail.” “Dusked” sufferers, put out by heavy sedatives, “scream before they vanish” into tortured sleep, then “take on a magenta cast, as though their skin is being glazed from within by a barbeque brush.” In a pop-up night market, peddlers sell lullabies, medicines, and electro-therapies. A nearby poppy field releases drowsy scents. A bar mixes cocktails: some soporific, others energizing. Drinkers consume the “grapey black and auroral fluids” like “Vikings rowing a longship. Lifting their glasses, slamming them down.” (Our insomnia experts recommend earlier dinners, exercise, sunshine, and screen-free bedrooms as treatments—potions with tangerine bubbles are definitely more alluring.) A list of nightmares in the back of the book (providing room for Russell’s imaginative overflow) includes “Renaissance portraits developing into ultrasounds,” “prehistoric grasshoppers fiddling on truck hoods,” and “unzipping a body bag and staring into your own blue face.”

Even as it sends shivers down the spine, Sleep Donation offers prescient commentary on the ethics of a public-health crisis. One of Russell’s great gifts is the ability to tell a captivating story that isn’t bogged down by profound themes. (This was also true of her most recent short-story collection, Orange World, which deals with motherhood and climate change via suckling demons and echolocating gondoliers.) With its ruminations on contagion and fear, public responsibility and private interest, Sleep Donation reads almost like an allegory for our time. (One of its side themes, about the utility of sex, feels relevant to our time but not to this narrative.) The nonprofit Slumber Corps dissembles and deceives for the greater good. Its founders, two billionaire brothers, will do anything for their cause, for the cure—but at what cost? And for what personal gain? “You start to feel like it’s all a Ponzi scheme,” Trish reflects. The “most precious commodity”—Baby A’s sleep, or in our case, a COVID-19 vaccine—easily creates corruption.

Trish also struggles with the ethics of her work, with the very idea of “donation.” Telling scared donors they won’t catch the nightmare at the clinic is like “promising the stars they’ll never burn out, fall.” To take sleep from vulnerable Baby A is to “hook the little bellows of her lungs to the larger bellows of our need.” And telling her sister’s sob story again and again somehow seems to dishonor her memory, turning the person who liked Fanny Howe and wore a green leather jacket into a mere victim. Making prospective donors cry feels manipulative. Perhaps “the nature of the request corrupts the purity of the gift.”

Frustratingly, Sleep Donation ends all at once, before we know the fate of Slumber Corps, or Baby A, or society at large. Its abrupt conclusion felt like a misstep—but perhaps that says more about this reader’s longing for closure. Was everyone all right, in the end?! Slumber Corps’s hollow promises even as the nightmare rages sound like a government reassuring its people that it’s fine to go back to school and work, fine to eat cheek-to-cheek at restaurants, fine, maybe, even to stop wearing masks. Don’t let the pandemic “dominate” your life. Just relax; get a good night’s sleep.

Sleep Donation
Karen Russell
Vintage Contemporaries
$16 | 160 pp. 

Katherine Lucky is a former managing editor of Commonweal.

Also by this author
Sacred Stories, Modern Audiences

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