So, like I said (or like Chekhov said), We shall rest. But that rest may still be a long way off. In the meantime (ominous word, meantime), we have Karen Russell’s Sleep Donation to keep us awake. Russell imagines an “insomnia emergency,” the origins of which remain unknown. “Currently the NCEH is investigating possible environmental causes in our city: everything from the water table to disturbed eagles’ nests to the brilliance of the moon on the grass, to the antique screams of the historic monorail.” On cable TV, guesses concerning the roots of the plague are less lyrical, more familiar: “According to these professional Cassandras, sleep has been chased off the globe by our twenty-four-hour news cycle, our polluted skies and crops and waterways, the bald eyeballs of our glowing devices. We Americans are sitting in an electric chair that we engineered.”
(An impossible-to-avoid irony: The only way to read Sleep Donation is on one of those glowing devices. Once you finish the novella—“110 pages, estimated,” in the loose math of our e-book age—you can head over to the book’s website and while away more hours following links like “The Nightmare Index,” which ranks nightmares as “most common,” “less common,” and “rare.” Among the rare ones: “Aviary, torn nets” and “Elevator, stuck between worlds.”)
“What becomes,” Russell’s narrator asks, “of our circadian rhythms, the ‘old, glad harmonies’ that leapt through us like the vascular thrust of water through leaves of grass? Bummer news, Walt: that song’s done.” In “Mother and Babe,” Whitman writes, “I see the sleeping babe nestling the breast of its mother, / The sleeping mother and babe—hush’d, I study them long and long.” In Russell’s novella, babies are used as “sleep donors,” as “deep, rich wells” for adults whose sleep-chances have run dry. They give sleep in the way that I used to give plasma: submit to the tubes, the centrifuge; hope for the best.
Non-nightmare-afflicted adults can donate sleep, as well—though most, as Russell’s narrator observes, are reluctant to do so:
If you’ve ever watched people speedily disqualify themselves from serving on a jury in a courtroom, you can imagine the efficiency with which many of our cold calls recuse themselves. When I announce that I am a Slumber Corps recruiter, people launch into descriptions of their most bewildering dreams, as evidence that they are unfit to give: “Ma’am, I keep drowning in my own blood at night. I have the shadow of an insect, I dreamed that. Really, I’m a menace. My dreams aren’t right . . .” “This one I’ve been having since childhood, I call it the bottomless dream? The dead go spelunking into blue holes. Then for some reason I’m in Lithuania, in a jade cave where the tornadoes breed . . .” “President Nixon strapped to a fire truck! Twice, I dreamed that this month . . .” A recent widower says: “What lugubrious facts. I regret that I will be unable to change them for you. My wife just died, you see, and she’s saturated my sleep like coffin milk.”
As The Onion writers once put it, “I had a really weird dream last night.”
Sleep Donation concludes elliptically, in the manner of many late nights. You’re awake . . . and then you’re not. If you’re lucky, you wind up like one of the subjects in this lovely photo essay on Slate. If you’re unlucky, you sleep like a baby: awake every other hour, screaming.
Thus ends our disquisition on sleep. “How Do You Sleep?” is a question. “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” is a kind of answer.