Let’s get this out of the way first: Karen Russell writes some beautiful sentences. Her imagery is vivid. That MacArthur Grant she won looks completely justified, as does her place as a Pulitzer finalist for her first novel, Swamplandia! I mean, a book with phrases like: “She’s a grief hemophiliac…it doesn’t clot. It never runs dry” can’t be all bad, right?
And that’s what is ultimately frustrating about Sleep Donation. It isn’t all bad. It’s just not what it could be.
From the newly launched and much hyped Atavist books, this novella takes place in a near-future world where an insomnia epidemic is sweeping the globe. And not ‘insomnia’ as in ‘people are really tired because they aren’t getting enough sleep.’ No, this is ‘people are dying because they have lost the ability to sleep’ insomnia.
Enter Slumber Corp, a non-profit founded by two Irish brothers who made their fortune in ergonomic toilet seats — and more importantly, have found a treatment for the insomnia crisis — and our protagonist, the aforementioned grief hemophiliac, Trish Edgewater. Edgewater is on Slumber Corp’s payroll to beg the healthy for donations to the sleep bank, where it can be stored, processed, and used to treat the sick. (More on this later.) She does this very well, mostly through telling and retelling and reliving the story of her sister, Dori, one of the first to die from the epidemic. Through Trish, and especially within the confines of her relationship with the parents of universal donor Baby A, we explore the themes of ends and means, of authenticity and manipulation, of altruism and exploitation. “Does it matter what we say,” Trish ponders, “if the mere fact of the utterance saves lives?”
We plunge further down this rabbit hole later after Trish’s (un)surprising discovery that everything isn’t exactly on the up-and-up at Slumber Corp. It’s here where the narrative takes off to another level. The second half of the book is practically riveting in its beauty, especially in the description of Trish’s visit with Baby A’s father to a Night World, one of the tent cities where insomniacs find refuge, companionship, and hope sold by amateur chemists and snake oil merchants alike.
Ultimately, Trish must make a choice: what is the price of a soul? How far can she go and still sleep at night?
These are some of the questions that great fictions wrestles with. So what’s my problem with the book? In a word: verisimilitude.
I found it impossible to suspend disbelief, especially during the novella’s first half. Look, I love a good fabulist story as much as the next reader. I’m fine with a “and then magic” explanation. But this story doesn’t go that route. Instead, it says “and then science.” And when you go down that road, you need to bring the goods in a plausible way. And Russell’s description of the sleep donation transaction, on which the entire world is built, is a flop. It fails. Miserably. In spectacular “Oh, come on!” fashion. Every time I found myself getting lost in the wonderful prose, I was splashed in the face with the cold water of how stupid this entire set up was.
A couple other minor quibbles: the formatting was wonky, especially on the Kindle for PC app. Weird spacing, unexpected page breaks. Some paragraphs repeating themselves. Whoever was in charge of this at Atavist was asleep at the switch. Formatting is not that hard. That it was poorly done no doubt played into the failure to engage. At the very least, it wasn’t helpful. (Also, Ms. Russell: why the need to point out that the secretary was male? Was that part of his job description? It was a weird turn of a phrase, especially for someone so careful with the words she chooses.)
So yeah. I was disappointed that such a promising set up from an obviously talented writer could go so far south. Good job, good effort, Ms. Russell. You’re better than this.