Karen Russell’s ‘Sleep Donation’ is a digital dream


Imagine a world without sleep. Or perhaps you don’t have to: Perhaps you are already in the throes of what, in her new novella “Sleep Donation” (Atavist Books: digital, $3.99), Karen Russell describes as “a universal American condition.”

“Who,” Russell asks, “was sleeping enough? Nobody! The ‘crisis’ seemed like more TV hyperbole designed to keep us glued to our screens, watching mattress commercials. America, in the childhood of our understanding of the insomnia crisis, called the first victims liars, hypochondriacs, wackos, crank addicts, insurance defrauders, anxious plagiarists of ‘real,’ biological disorders.”

The crisis to which Russell refers is an epidemic of insomnia, a kind of collective hyper-vigilance brought on by … what? The cause is never clear, although it may have something to do with our intense immersion in the present, our sense, in a society that is over-networked, information saturated, that to sleep is to miss out, resulting in a “kind of extreme sleep-anorexia.”


It’s only fitting, then, that “Sleep Donation” should be the first release from Atavist Books, a collaborative effort of the digital long form innovator the Atavist, Barry Diller and Scott Rudin. Run by former Picador USA publisher Frances Coady, it is geared to eclipsing the blurry line between digital and print.

“Sleep Donation” is being issued as an e-book only; upcoming releases (which include Gary Younge’s “A Day in the Death of America” and Hari Kunzru’s “Twice Upon a Time: Listening to New York”) will toggle back and forth between platforms, as it were. The idea is that at this point form should follow function … or maybe it’s just that good writing is good writing, in whatever medium it might appear.

Either way, “Sleep Donation” is a terrific way to start an imprint, a starkly dystopian novella reminiscent of George Saunders in its bleak humor, the directness of its prose. Narrated by Trish Edgewater — whose sister Dori was one of the first casualties of the insomnia epidemic — it is at once a satire of aid organizations and a brittle examination of exploitation and its discontents.

The main narrative revolves around a 6-month-old, known as Baby A, whose slumber — mined, in six-hour increments, by an exclusive technology of sleep donation — is so pure it can cure insomnia across the board.

Baby A is, in other words, a universal donor, and through Trish’s eyes, we are exposed, piece by piece, to the desperate need to keep her parents compliant, to maintain the child’s sleeping as the source of a universal mother lode.

This, of course, raises all sorts of questions about ethics, about coercion and how we (collectively or individually) bend others to our will. Russell is sharp on that, although even more in tracing Trish’s complicity — not only as the main contact with Baby A’s family, but also in the way she uses her sister’s tragic story as a strategy to close the deal with potential donors.


Trish loved Dori and was devastated by her decline. “My mouthy, gorgeous, stupid-brave sister Dori,” she tells us, “Miss ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’ (even when the only ‘It’ available to us was our great aunt’s haunted house of a wood-paneled Chrysler — who ever heard of a car with termites?), Miss ‘Three Jobs, Two College Majors, and There’s a Flask in my Purse,’ was at this point a nobody. … Once sleep stopped melting time for Dori, she could not dig herself out.”

And yet, this doesn’t stop her from turning Dori into a poster child, a cautionary tale — or a guilt-inducing come on, a means to manipulate the healthy into donating their sleep.

This is not the first time Russell — a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, whose novel “Swamplandia!” was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize — has taken on insomnia; the story “ZZ’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers,” which unfolds at a sort of sleep rehab, appears in her 2006 collection “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.”

“I have never been the prophet of my own past before,” Russell writes there. “It makes me wonder how the healthy dreamers can bear to sleep at all.”

That could be the epigraph for “Sleep Donation,” which grows out of a similar set of considerations, even as it frames them through a broader lens.

How do we let go in a culture where attention appears, increasingly, to be its own odd form of distraction? Where is consolation in this brave new world?



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