The Short Version: Sometime into the future, insomnia has gone from being an occasional annoyance to being a full-blown medical disorder. People simply begin to lose the ability to go to sleep. A service develops called the SlumberCorps, where healthy sleepers can donate their sleep just like you might donate blood – but even that can only make a dent in the problem. And then, a baby arrives who is miraculously a universal donor…
The Review: We’ve all had those nights. Lying there, staring at the ceiling. Tossing, turning, catching a few moments here or there only to discover that’s it has been literally only a few moments. But what if you couldn’t sleep? What would happen to you? What if everyone couldn’t sleep? What would happen to us?
Russell’s novella – the first from Atavist Books, the publishing arm of the brilliantly curated online/email/app magazine – tackles these questions in that very-Karen-Russell way that you might expect. There is no explanation for where the disease came from or when, exactly, we are – there’s a DSM-12, so presumably we’re significantly far into the future. There’s also the technology to donate sleep, whatever that might mean, exactly. We’re treated to a view of the technology in action but no actual understanding of the science, leaving a rather magical quality to the whole experience.
Which, I’d argue, is the point.
I’ve said before that, even in her weaker moments, Karen Russell is my short-story spirit animal. Her stories consistently evoke a sense of… I don’t want to call it childish wonder, because that has certain connotations and her stories are not for children. But that whispered magic that, as a child, your imagination deploys upon the world around you with such ease – that’s what Karen Russell does well. And as I read this novella, I was reminded (even though I thought Swamplandia! committed the ultimate sin of partially revoking that magic in a horrifying way) that Russell can do some really lovely things with a larger world than that of a short story. The short story version of this novella would still be quite a read – but it would, I’m sure, lack segments like the visit to the Night World and the Poppy Field, or Trish’s last night stays at the office. These segments that shed color and depth on the world of the story only make the whole package better, more interesting, more hypnotic.
What’s most interesting, though, is that this story is essentially one of horror – to not sleep is the most unimaginable torture. Nightmares that are communicable? Terrifying – especially the unexplained (and that lack of explanation is in turn explained away so perfectly) nature of the Donor Y nightmare. We don’t understand sleep, really: sure, it’s to recharge, but… why? How? Why does a catnap provide the same basic benefit as eight hours might? Why can some function on an hour or two while others need ten? Russell exploits this lack of knowing while also allowing it to simply be. This is not a story of answers, it is a story of seeking them. It is all the better for it.
A diversion on the delivery of the product: so, Atavist has their own app (although the stories they’re publishing will be available on Amazon and, some, in brick-and-mortar stores too) and that’s honestly my recommendation on how to get it. The app runs a little slow and can be a little unresponsive on an iPhone – but, then, I probably shouldn’t be reading stories on my iPhone. There’s an audiobook packaged in, narrated by the amazing Greta Gerwig, that I listened to shortly after finishing the novella just to experience the story differently – and I found that, indeed, I did experience this story differently from square one. The scroll down, followed by the swipe left, created an interesting rhythm – especially since no two chapters (if chapters are what they were) were the same length. Not unlike a regular book, you can see that the sections remaining are dwindling… but I’ll admit to gasping aloud when the book ended because I was so shocked that I’d hit the end. I thought there was more – and my surprise (the story ends well enough where it does, although we of course [quel surprise] want more) added a delightful layer to the entire reading experience.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. The world here is one that Russell could easily have developed even further – I almost wish that she had. There are so many questions! But her talents are also uniquely suited to short-er stories in a way that so many of her contemporaries aren’t – and so the shorter length is not a detriment to the tale. Indeed, it’s a troubling (if beautiful) concept and story, told with a deft and breezy magic – like the magic of a big full moon to a kid on a late suburban night.