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Book review: It’s worth losing sleep over ‘Sleep Donation’

By David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times

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Sleep Donation

Karen Russell

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, 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 is an epidemic of insomnia. 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 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. It is geared to eclipsing the blurry line between digital and print.

Sleep Donation is being issued as an e-book only; coming releases will toggle between platforms. 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.

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 — it is a satire of aid organizations and a brittle examination of exploitation and its discontents.

It 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. 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 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 to manipulate the healthy into donating their sleep.

Russell — a 2013 MacArthur fellow, whose novel Swamplandia! was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize — asks: 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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