Author: Karen Russell
Type: Fiction, novella (Kindle single)
I read it: April 2014
I was keyed in to the plot and tone of the book: having a nine month-old had already forced my body to get used to less sleep, but the day I started this novella we brought him on a plane for the first time. The next 36 hours were an extreme test of dealing with infant jet lag, and sleep hours were cut short all around. I read most of this story with that dull queasy feeling from not even being close to fully rested–that point where you’re operating at about 50-60% of your full strength.
Russell’s intense, poetic prose glued me to the reading experience. An insomnia epidemic would be frightening, and it’s made more so by the mundane nature of describing donations and transfusions occurring in something like a bloodmobile as we already know them. To add to this, a nightmare spreads like a virus through the donated stores of sleep, which is apparently so terrifying that some people (“electives”) try to voluntarily keep themselves awake so as not to experience it. It’s the worst of both worlds: the choice between no sleep or bad sleep. I have no idea which camp I would rather be in. Please save me from both.
Even though the ramifications of the story could be a metaphor for any type of disease, Russell’s handling of the scenario remains unique and effective because so many of us, even if we’re not true insomniacs, have an idea of what it’s like to be sleep-deprived. We’ve stood on the tip of that iceberg. What’s underneath the dreamy water is something that scares me more than most things scare me. Russell’s skills are powerful, but beware being sucked into her dimly lit world. Read this story to stay awake, or read it to fall asleep: those are your mirrored options, each with its parallel exhaustions.