A year after reading the short stories in Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, I’m still haunted by her weirdly wonderful — or wonderfully weird — tales. “Reeling for the Empire,” in which Japanese girls turn into grotesque furry silkworms, spinning thread out of their hands, still strikes me as the stuff of nightmares. So I made sure to read Russell’s new digital novella Sleep Donation (Atavista, purchased e-book) during the daytime. Even then, I think some of it seeped into my restless dreams.
But, hey, at least I can sleep and dream, unlike many of the people in Sleep Donation, where the Americas are undergoing an Insomniac Crisis in the near-future. You can die if you can’t sleep, like Trish Edgewater’s sister Dori, whose mind was crushed by waking moments. “Once sleep stopped time for Dori, she could not dig herself out. She was buried under snowflakes, minutes to hours to months.
“The official cause of death was organ failure.”
It may sound relatively peaceful, but it wasn’t, and it’s because Trish can recount Dori’s agonizing Last Day with such immediacy that’s she’s a prize recruiter for Slumber Corps, the non-profit that encourages healthy dreamers to donate sleep to terminal insomniacs. The system — with its Sleep Drives to recruit donors, its Sleep Vans, where their dreams are painlessly siphoned, and its Sleep Banks, where donations are processed and tested for nightmares — works well for the most part, like the blood banks of our time. But there’s never enough good sleep to go around, and the number of insomniacs needing transfusions continues to grow. On the outskirts of town, the sleepless seek relief at the Night Fair, paying fortunes for potions or a prime spot in the Poppy Fields.
At first, Trish’s discovery of Baby A, a universal donor, seems like a miracle. But Trish wonders how much sleep the poor child can give, as do her parents, Justine and Felix. Will their generosity with their daughter’s sleep last until researchers can synthesize the perfect artificial sleep? How many times can Trish recount Dori’s story before it’s just another story? And what of Donor Y, whose tainted sleep has led to a nightmare contagion resulting in elective insomniacs and suicides? What is so awful about his dreams that people refuse to go to sleep ever again?
Russell’s world-building is impressive, as is her verbal dexterity. Her imagination is simply fantastic, Ray Bradbury on speed. “It is a special kind of homelessness. . . to be evicted from your dreams.”