Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Karen Russell's novella "Sleep Donation" is a vivid and haunting allegory about a dystopian, near-future America suffering from a raging and deadly insomnia epidemic.
The narrator of the story is Trish Edgewater, who works for a Red Cross-like "Slumber Corps" which collects donations of sleep from healthy volunteers and provides transfusions of this life force to the zombie-like insomniacs. The Slumber Corps begins to mine the sleep even of infants to meet the seemingly endless need. Trish's sister Dori had been one of the first insomniacs to die from the mysterious new epidemic, whose causes are poorly understood. Trish is a master at seeking donors; she "pitches" the sad tale of her sister's death, and thus exploits her own grief and her sister's memory. Complications ensue when Trish uncovers the misdeeds of one of the Slumber Corps' heroic founders, and she begins to question the ethics of the entire process.
Whenever I read Russell, I feel like a fall into the rabbit hole of her weird and distorted reality. Somehow, she makes the implausible seem plausible, and the fantastical, immersive worlds of her fiction hold essential truths about our own world. Here, Russell comments about our deep-seated fears of contagion that can't be controlled or contained, and satirizes the media, government, and NGOs in their response to public crises, both real and imagined. She raises questions about need vs greed and our exploitation of natural resources; just as we have taken all that the earth has to give in our bottomless need for more energy, the Slumber Corps extracts the sleep of babies to serve the never-ending need for the elixir of pure sleep.
I particularly appreciated the theme of transfusion in "Sleep Donation." Russell implies that many human interactions are forms of transfusions--of love, of praise, of faith, of sex--and that the success of these transfusions can depend on the match of the donor and recipient. Sometimes, no matter how needed or desired, a transfusion simply does not work. What a fascinating way to view human interactions.
The prose is vintage Russell, sharp and intelligent. This is a quick and engaging read that will satisfy readers of science fiction and fantasy as well as serious literary fiction. My main criticism is that I wanted more--just as with some of Russell's short stories, I found the ending somewhat abrupt, and felt that more of the tale could be told. Some of this, no doubt, is from my own preference for novels... and I hope that we will soon receive the gift--or perhaps, I should say, transfusion--of another full-length novel from Karen Russell.
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