I heard the tail-end of a Fresh Air interview with Karen Russell a few weeks ago and I was intrigued. She and Teri Gross were discussing her story of the vampires in the lemon grove, but the way Russell talked about her writing was enough to make my ears perk up when every morning after I heard a spot for her new novella, Sleep Donation, on my NPR Player app.
I have some trouble with insomnia and have read that insomnia ages you and is a contributing factor to Alzheimer’s. Many Americans are in a similar position, which is part of the brilliance of Russell’s plot. Her protagonist, Edgewater, works for Sleep Corps, which is run by two billionaire brothers, and which takes sleep donations and gives them to those suffering from fatal insomnia. An epidemic has hit the Americas, one that sees its victims experience less and less sleep, until gradually they stop sleeping altogether and die. Russell’s protagonist watched her older sister die, one of the epidemic’s first victims. Her sister’s story, however, proves highly effective at recruiting sleep and financial donors, and Edgewater is one of Sleep Corps most valued employees.
The epidemic is tragic, of course, but what sets events in motion is Edgewater’s recruitment of the world’s only known universal sleep donor, Baby A, and the increasing demands for Baby A’s sleep set against her father’s increasing concerns for her safety.
There are plenty of opportunities for political commentary in Sleep Donation. Why do two billionaire entrepreneurs sell their business and sink their money into a non-profit? What proof does Sleep Corps have that the sleep donations are truly safe? How secure is the screening process for donors? Will humans stop at over-harvesting sleep from innocent infants? What will we pimp to make the sale?
The political snipes are low hanging fruit and the least interesting portions of the story. What do we do when we have lost the ability to sleep? When nightmares become contagious? Where is the line between telling someone’s story to help make a difference and exploiting their story to further your own cause? How much should one person have to give even if that gift benefits multitudes?
I left Sleep Donation unsatisfied, but I think that was the point. I know tonight I will appreciate my ability to drift quietly off to sleep.