In high school, the Red Cross blood truck would pull up behind the trailers to collect donations from young, hale students, who got to skip homeroom and eat a raisin cookie and relinquish pints of type O. Dori gave, but I never did – I convinced myself that I was scared of needles. If I'd known then that I'd wind up here, begging strangers for an hour of their sleep, I think I would have given blood at every opportunity.
As a Corps volunteer, my duties are numerous and varied. Weekends, I mobilize the Sleep Van – a moonlit enterprise that dispatches a volunteer team to the homes of good sleepers, who have signed up to donate their rest to insomniacs. A Sleep Van has a spartan interior. The beds we call "catch-cots." If the Van is equipped for infants and children, it features catch-cribs and trundles. Nurses slip on the anesthetic mask, open the IV of special chemicals, relieving a donor of consciousness; next, they clamp on and adjust the silver helmet, which does chafe a bit; one to two minutes after the loss of consciousness, once the donor enters a state of artificially stimulated sleep, the draw commences. The air in the Sleep Van turns balmy as the tubing heats; a donor's dream-moist breath gets siphoned into nozzles that connect to our tanks. Healthy sleep is pumped out of the body into long, clear tubes. (e-book p. 7)
A plague of insomnia has descended upon the world, as millions of sufferers progressively worsen until they die in a fit of days-long sleeplessness. The only effective short-term treatment is the periodic infusion of sleep "donated" by the non-afflicted in a fashion similar to a blood transfusion. This is the premise to Karen Russell's just-released novella, Sleep Donation. It is an unusual one, yes, but no less so than women turned into silk-producing hybrids or an orphanage for girls raised by wolves. If the devil is in the details, then Russell certainly invents enough details to allow readers of this near-future tale to suspend their disbelief.
Trish Edgewater, whose sister Dori was one of the first victims of the insomnia plague, is one of the star recruiters for the non-profit Slumber Corps. She narrates her experiences drumming up sleep donors, ranging from providing seemingly trivial backstories to narrating in a chillingly clinical fashion the effects of sleep donation on both donors and recipients. Russell tries to balance the need for more backstory with the horrifically personal moments, but there are times early in the novella where things are imbalanced and the narrative momentum is temporarily arrested due to the time devoted to explicating the events.
However, with the twin introductions of "Baby A" and "Donor Y," the story takes a turn toward a faster-paced, gripping tale. With these twin donors, one an infant who has no choice in how her rest is used, the other one whose nightmares infect countless people before he is identified as the source, Russell works in numerous allusions to contemporary bio-ethical issues. To what extent should conscious consent be considered when it comes to the needs of others? Does the end of salvaging sleep for strangers justify the stresses placed on donor families? Are donation services truly altruistic or do other, more pecuniary, matters rise to the top in importance?
These are several of the questions that Russell addresses here. Occasionally, she uses satirical humor to explore these issues, but those moments are often among the more faltering ones. Russell often tries too hard to make her humor work and it shows in the labored punchlines. However, when she treats the situation and its consequences in a more straightforward fashion, these issues take on a gravitas that more than makes up for the weaker humorous sections.
Despite these occasional lapses in narrative momentum due to poor parceling out of info-dumps and forced humor, Sleep Donation demonstrates Russell's growth as a writer. While she has written several strong stories that utilize weird elements, here in Sleep Donation she seems to be more confident in grounding this weirdness in very real contemporary concerns. While she does not aim to create an allegory here, there certainly are enough elements in common with current urban-centered lifestyle shifts (working non-diurnal schedules, focusing on aggrandizing resources at the expense of holistic development, etc.) that readers aware of these socio-cultural trends will see commentaries on them within Russell's novella. While this does not make Sleep Donation a "message" tale, it does inform the narrative and adds layers of depth to it. Sleep Donation may not be a perfect novella, but its flaws are mostly forgivable and the narrative seems to point the way to a different path for Russell to take. Not her best work, but certainly an enjoyable read that makes me curious to see what her next long fiction will look like.