This Occipital Sorrow – Book Review: Sleep Donation by Karen Russell

1403_SBR_SLEEP_COVER.jpg.CROP.original-originalIn Karen Russell’s e-novella Sleep Donation, the inaugural title for Atavist Books, the reader enters a world in which our dreams are no longer private. Insomnia is an epidemic, and no one knows the cause. Every day, more people lose their ability to sleep. Healthy sleepers are asked to literally give their dreams away, to donate them in hours.

Summed up, these events may sound lofty, but in Sleep Donation they are described by narrator Trish bluntly, even clinically. After all, these are the facts of her life. Trish volunteers as a recruiter for the nonprofit Slumber Corps, soliciting people to give to their sleep banks. The process by which people donate is real and palpable. It’s medical. Nurses can smell the dizzying scent of the donors’ sleep as it streams out of them. Make no mistake: there is nothing dream-like about this world.

In order to solicit donations, Trish is forced to relive her own personal nightmare. She snags donors by telling them about the insomnia-caused death of her sister, one of the earliest cases of the disorder. In this way, she is constantly reliving her loss. Trish is one of Slumber Corps’ most successful recruiters. Trish is honest. She’s wry. She’s never sure that she’s doing the right thing. In short, she is human.

It is with her sister’s story that Trish solicits Baby A: the universal donor, a tiny fountain of untainted sleep. But, as Trish watches the sleep drain out of the infant week after week, she feels uneasy. Then there is Donor Y, a man who infects thousands of patients with his nightmare. Terrified donors abandon the cause. A group of people infected with the nightmare refuses to sleep. Even those who do not suffer from clinical insomnia stay awake, afraid of what their unconscious minds might do.

Trish uncovers a secret that calls the whole system of giving and receiving—the boundary between the private world of one’s dreams and the public good—into question. She has to decide: how much should one person be asked to give, and on what terms?

Trish increasingly doubts herself. Even the nurses who work in the Sleep Van, surrounded by the dizzying presence of donor’s dreams, aren’t sure whether or not their work is just. Trish avows: “And I feel certain there must be a second set of laws, inscrutable but real, that governs exactly how much a particular individual can give to and receive from another.” It is difficult for Trish to look at human relationships as anything other than exchanges: who gains? who loses?

Even though Sleep Donation takes place in its own sleep-deprived reality, it’s an eerily familiar tale. After all, we readers live in a world in which there are cures for insomnia, but in which there are no clear answers to the novella’s central questions: How much of ourselves should we share with others? In the first place, how much should we be asked to give?

At the end of Russell’s short stories I often find myself craving a few (or, a hundred) more pages. The novella is a fitting form for her imagination. Though, honestly, I still wanted Sleep Donation to be even longer (at the end, I thought: and then what happened?). This is as much a testament to the complete and compelling world created here as anything.

Sleep Donation is also an interesting study of how Russell’s own authorial preoccupations have evolved. Russell’s early story, “Z.Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers,” bemoans the fact that we are alone in our dreams. Its narrator finds comfort in the fact that he shares his sleep disorder with his best friend: their dreams are synced “postmonitions,” prophecies of past disasters. When his friend is mysteriously cured of the disorder, the narrator feels abandoned, commenting: “I had almost forgotten this occipital sorrow, the way you are so alone with the things you see in dreams.” In Sleep Donation, we see how necessary this “occipital sorrow” is; we need it to help us digest reality, to carve out our own unique place within it. In the advanced stages of insomnia, its sufferers become psychotic; their ability to perceive reality is gone. Sufferers hallucinate. In the end, their organs fail. They have heart attacks or strokes. But, before that, they have lost their ability to separate one moment from the next, to make sense of their own identities.

As Russell’s early story laments, we may be alone in our dreams, but as Sleep Donation shows us, we are useless without them.

Sleep Donation

Atavist Books (March 25, 2014)

Reviewed by Sadye Teiser