sleep donationTo Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Author: Karen Russell

Entranced by the bizarre, award winning author and Pulitzer Prize finalist Karen Russell (author of Swamplandia! and Vampires in the Lemon Grove) is back with another enigmatic message from a curious albeit eerily recognizable future. In a world of hyper awareness and emotional sanitization, a sleep crises has swept the globe. Every day hundreds of people die from lack of sleep, wasting away into a surrealistic void until their brains cannot handle anymore. Science struggles to understand and control the epidemic. Sleep donation, the process of harvesting healthy sleep and dreams from the few non-insomniacs brave enough to volunteer, provides a temporary cure, allowing new insomniacs to survive longer and in some cases recover. But the need is greater than the availability of willing sleep donors and media skepticism of the pseudo-science is reaching an all new low when an infected dosage of sleep infects tormented individuals with uncontrollable night terrors.

In between public opinion and waning volunteers is Trish, a volunteer worker for the Slumber Corp, an emergency van of sleep collectors who will do anything to capture healthy sleep. Trish has given up her own life and needs in memory of her dead sister, one of the first diagnosed insomniacs and contractor of the strange disease. Determined to be a savior, the induction of Baby A, the first universal sleep donor, makes Trish dive into larger questions of truth, ethics, and intentions taking the worldwide struggle and exponentially compounding it. How far should you go to save someone? Is it right for one to suffer so that millions can be saved and who gets to make that choice? Is corruption acceptable when the alternative is far worse? Where does personal responsibility intersect with social need?

Eerie in a dream-like way, Sleep Donation dives into the deep end, starting in the midst of this deprived new world and wading further into the murk of the unknown. Science is sketchy, corporations selfish, the government insubordinate, the public afraid, and volunteers emotionally needy. The clear-cut world of good works vs outcomes starts well enough with a vividly remembered flashback and a character determined that what she is doing is not only right, but necessary. The haunting language, elegantly serpentine, strange and faraway yet visceral in a subtle, getting-under-your-skin maneuver, enables the waking nightmare to take on new dimensions and while its oh so strange, its just so real and now. From the Night Worlds populated by black market remedies and helpless insomniacs bolstering those affected by the tainted sleep who are fighting the dreams and attempting to stay awake always, the desperation hovers between hopeless and oddly beautiful. The calumny of pep talks intercedes with our own inner notions of what is right on an individual level and Trish’s enforced stand-offish, deprived volunteer status is not enough to shield her from feeling and awakening to unwanted responsibility.

The question itself is great, the setting futuristic and primitive like the most unforgettable vision in the dark. What makes it all spark, dripping anxiety and making our eyes ache with the want of sleep we can feel on behalf of the suffering, is the meticulous language. It captures the attempted sterility of the volunteer Slumber Corps world, the deliberate distancing for duty, and the awakening of a soul trying to die. It’s both personal and social and striking a balance and oscillating back and forth as the plot shifts and Trish finds out more about Baby A and the mysterious tainted sleep donor. Ultimately, good and evil fades into a complexity of jumbled needs.

The cry for attention is just as universal as the call to action and the final cliffhanger takes us right through the decision making to the process and no further. We won’t know what happens and to whom. Who’s to say, all things considered, that Trish made the right choice or that her actions will not cause worse calamity? The question, worked through from all angles and suffered over, cannot be answered in the end and it’s here that the story refuses to let go, tinging the daytime musings and decisions of effected readers. Sleep Donation is our future, our past, and our now. The cause and effect of judgement and neutrality, giving up and hope, will merge and create new futures and they might be better and they might be worse. Russell leaves us these thoughts and all the beautiful, terrible images to sleep on.

–        Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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