“Sleep Donation” novella tells dull story in a dazzling universe

By VICTORIA HILLS ’14

Staff Writer

 

“No longer is sunshine the coagulant of consciousness, causing us to clot into personalities, to cohere once more on our pillows each morning.”

So writes Karen Russell in “Sleep Donation,” the digital-only novella released last week exclusively for e-readers. This line is at once a snapshot synopsis of the story’s plot — insomnia is an epidemic so severe that millions are dying or dead — and a sampler of the startlingly gorgeous prose style that is Russell’s hallmark.

Russell is only 32, and she has published just three books, two of which are short story collections, but her writing is so fresh and fanciful that she is frequently heralded as one of the best modern American writers. Her first novel, “Swamplandia!,” was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Last year she was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant.

Russell specializes in the bizarre, from vampires who slake their thirst with fresh Italian lemons to a barnful of U.S. presidents reanimated as horses. In “Sleep Donation,” the United States is entrenched in a battle against sleeplessness, where people still capable of peaceful slumber donate hours of their sleep to insomniacs. Trish, the novella’s narrator, uses the death of her sister, one of the first Americans to die of insomnia, to secure sleep donations. Much of the story is dedicated to the toll this emotional manipulation takes on both Trish and the donors she recruits.

“Sleep Donation” presents an original and fully realized world, where insomniacs try to fall asleep in moonlit poppy fields, medical jargon is popular slang and politicians win votes by declaring the inability to dream “a special kind of homelessness.” These details are slung out deftly, with the unromanticized carelessness of a narrator who has adapted to her surroundings. Even at its strangest, this freaky alternate reality feels real.

But while the “Sleep Donation” universe is alluring, the story is only infrequently engaging and rarely dramatic. The crown jewels of Russell’s latest work don’t reveal anything new about the writer. She continues to prove her nearly unparalleled gift for arranging words in dazzling and unexpected ways, and, as always, she delivers a full-body submersion experience as she plunges readers deep into a captivating new world. But Trish in “Sleep Donation” isn’t half as compelling a narrator as Ava Bigtree of “Swamplandia!” Even while people are dying of insomnia, “Sleep Donation” still feels like a low-stakes game.

“Sleep Donation” is worth reading, though, if only because work like Russell’s is so rare. “Death’s dress rehearsal is ongoing at any bus stop in America,” she writes, “where sick people beg us not for minutes of sleep but for metallic dollar-flakes, wealth dandruff.” Or: “Some intern has made curtains for the trailer windows, snaggy lace, which look nothing like curtains, in fact, but vestments tiny and obscene: bridal veils for mice, chinchilla negligees.” Russell’s ideas are weird, and she translates them in weird ways, but it’s precisely that weirdness that entraps and delights her readers.

“Sleep Donation,” which is only available in digital format, can be purchased for the NOOK or Kindle for $3.99.

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