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Book Review

‘Sleep Donation’ by Karen Russell

Karen Russell’s “Sleep Donation” follows a woman who solicits gifts of slumber in a world of increasing insomnia.Michael Lionstar

“How do people go to sleep,” asks a character in Dorothy Parker’s story “The Little Hours.” “I’m afraid I’ve lost the knack.”

What a contemporary statement. And this from a story written in 1933 — an era without 24-hour news cycles, ubiquitous Wi-Fi, and widespread coffee addiction.

All of which have stoked a monster insomnia epidemic that sweeps through MacArthur winning writer Karen Russell’s wonderful new novella “Sleep Donation.”

The book kicks off newly launched Atavist Books. You cannot buy Russell’s book in a bookstore, but you can download it on Atavist’s phone app, Creativist, or read it from the ghostly glow of your e-reader device.


In other words, here’s a novella to keep your digitally enhanced — or digitally-created — sleepless hours company. Either way, it is unlikely to put you to rest.

This is because “Sleep Donation” has about as much to do with sleep as her latest collection, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” had to do with sucking blood.

Like George Saunders, Russell writes with a Swiftian sense of satire. In her stories and the novel, “Swamplandia,” she presents the world through her own mordant looking glass.

“Sleep Donation” is her most cutting lens yet. In its pages, Russell meditates on how market worship has warped health care; she shows America’s desire to plunder resources leading back to our final resource, our bodies; and most impressively, she traces the fine, cracked line that divides what is genuine from what is synthetic.

“Sleep Donation” follows Trish Edgewater as she loses all sense of this line. One cannot fault Trish too much. We’re sometime in futuristic Pennsylvania, and Trish’s job is gathering sleep donations for a rising nonprofit called Sleep Corps.

A pair of Irish twin brothers has patented a way to take sleep from one person and give it to another.


Russell’s description of this process is less impressive than how she evokes the burlesque Trish does to secure donors. Trish’s ace move involves bringing up the death of her sister, Dori, to a colossal case of insomnia. “She died awake after twenty days . . . without sleep,” Trish tells us.

Upon hearing of this loss, reluctant listeners turn their circadian pockets inside out and give. They even fork over their babies’ sleep: For obvious reason this is the purest, most desired slumber. Meanwhile, Trish watches as Dori’s story, “now in its told state, expulsed, floats somewhere far outside me, emitting its jellyfish light.”

“Sleep Donation” glows with eerie-fine phrases like this. As the population grows ever more sleepless, snake-oil salesman set up shop, and sleep speak-easies hug the edge of cities.

Meanwhile, the healthy look on with a sense of relief and a growing need to be absolved from that relief. “She’s like a grief hemophiliac,” a man says about his overly generous wife, as Trish dries her gory tears. “It doesn’t clot; It never runs dry.”

Just when “Sleep Donation” begins to feel a little far-fetched, Russell’s narrator makes a pointed comment that could apply to our present world. “Death’s dress rehearsal is ongoing at any bus stop in America,” she says, arguing that sleep crisis is hardly something new. “[S]ick people beg us not for minutes of sleep but for metallic dollar-flakes, wealth dandruff.”

Russell has a keen sense of dramatic timing and an even sharper ability to turn an internal state into its own weather system. Trish’s conscience, long-quieted, awakens when Sleep Corps begins demanding larger and larger donations from a baby with ultra-pure sleep. There may even be a black market for this stuff.


In a beautiful set-piece, Trish ventures with this baby’s skeptical father to one of the edgelands where the sleepless go for solace and slumber. “America’s greatest talent,” she thinks as poppy-seed sellers ply their wares, “is to generate desires that would never have occurred, natively, to a body like mine.”

Russell’s recent work, especially “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” has brilliantly shown how desire and fear are inscribed on the body. One piece, “The New Veterans,” told of a massage therapist trying, and failing, to extract all the pain an American soldier had brought home from Iraq.

Every time the therapist works on him, a tattoo across his back depicting the day his platoon mates died begins to change. Similarly, the soldier’s story of the event fractures and develops inconsistencies. Some days he seems to be performing his pain for her.

“Sleep Donation” extends this piece’s profound look at the nature of giving and receiving: how the transaction is unstable and often leaves both parties depleted.

Trish, like so many people who solicit, returns over and again to a bank of value in order to extract her quarry. Eventually, however, she has performed her own run on this currency. Will she get out in time? Will we?

John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist.”