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Sleep Donation by Karen Russell

Sleep Donation

by Karen Russell

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17116103,631 (3.37)5

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As other reviewers have noted, "Sleep Donation" isn't really a complete story: the author cuts it off rather awkwardly just as the story takes another turn. Even so, it's absolutely amazing how much stuff Karen Russell can pack into one hundred and ten short pages. The basic plot concerns the sister of a modern plague that resembles a terminal sort of insomnia but might easily be compared with AIDS or SARS as she works desperately to help others afflicted with the disease. In the middle of it all is a baby who appears to be some sort of universal "sleep donor" and another donor who seems to have infected the nation's "sleep supply" with a nightmare so awful that those who suffer from it can't even describe it.

There's a lot to sort through here: though it seems to be set in Russell's sunny, verdant Florida, most of this novel's characters seem to be pushed right to their limits, if not beyond: "Sleep Donation" is, in part, a story of how humans manage to operate at the limits of their capacity, a novel for a disaster-prone century. Our narrator is also the sister of one of the first and best-known victims of the insomniac plague and has discovered that incorporating her sister's death into her "sleep donation" sales pitch works wonders. She's understandably conflicted about this use of her sister's memory, despite its morally admirable motivation and her spectacular, often-life saving results. "Sleep Donation" at times, seems to be a very American meditation on what parts ourselves we can cheerfully sell and which should remain strictly private, though. And sometimes, as the sleepless epidemic mutates and a number of weird homegrown subcultures form in reaction to it, "Sleep Donation" seems to be a study in human reactions and resourcefulness: I expect that the author had a lot of fun thinking up the whole range of products that the insomniacs use to try to bring on sleep. In this little book, the sleepless inhabit a separate world from others, much as, say, night-shift workers do.

It's the theme of donation -- or rather, of personal exchange in all of its forms, which is to say emotional, monetary, physical, sexual, and other, less tangible sorts -- that's really at the heart of the book. The main character has clearly given a huge part of herself to try to save others from the malady that killed her sister. The question she constantly poses, however, is how much she can ask others to give, particularly since the donor in question is maybe about a year old. The scenes that feature our protagonist, the baby, and her parents are unbelievably tender and well-drawn: all the book's character's seem fully aware of how much hope and life rides on her continued donations. The effect can be devastating, or, when Russell holds back a bit, genuinely touching.

But, as always, the prose is the real reason to read "Sleep Donation." Russell's prose seems at once extremely precise and remarkably straightforward. Despite being freighted with enormous themes her writing has an easy, loose feel that likely makes entire creative writing classes burst into tears of frustration. I can't quite figure out how she does it: she seldom uses what Hemingway might call a "big word," but her perfectly composed sentences flow so naturally you can almost feel them breathing. Reading Russell is like watching Rembrandt knock off an Old Masters gem using a 64-pack of Crayolas. And while she never seems like she's showing off, but it must take a lot of work to make it look this easy. One gets the sense that she handles a word processor with the sort of uncanny grace that Michael Jordan handled a basketball. The effect is simply stunning: some people are just born to do it, I guess. The author could, I suppose, treat this Kindle Single as a part of larger work, or could leave it where it lies. But it's worth reading if for no other reason than to see its author do her thing, again. ( )
  TheAmpersand | Jan 13, 2017 |
I did not feel this one like I did Swamplandia!. Took me way longer to finish it than I had expected. This might be due to the format, but I think also I was simply not carried by the story. There was some terrific language, which is to be expected from Russell, but I had a hard time connecting the desperation of Trish Edgewater (and the general cast of characters) back to the reality that I know. This wasn't the case with Eva Bigtree and the story of Swamplandia!. With the novella, I think Russell's created an interesting sci-fi-ish world, but the characters just aren't interesting. ( )
  jantz | Jan 1, 2017 |
This is advertised as a novella. Amazon suggested a reading time is just over an hour. I am a fast reader and it took me two hours. The wonderfully complex vocabulary and sentence structures were a delight to be appreciated and not rushed. I found myself using a dictionary because I wanted to get a more precise appeal for what the author wanted me to understand. I like to review books and I give a lot of three and four-star ratings but few five-star ratings. This is a five. I haven’t seen such masterful and creative use of language since William F. Buckley (sorry if any political sensibilities got trampled here).

In the United States, there is a new illness that is attacking more and more people each day. People cannot sleep, but this is not simple insomnia. The new sufferers cannot sleep at all, anytime; they stay awake until they die of exhaustion. This is the premise of Sleep Donation, a short novel by Karen Russell. The novel tells us the new disease is only present in America although only the US is discussed. Three-quarters of the way through the book the disease finally attacks Asian and European countries. How did it get there? That is one of the mysteries in the story.

Two very rich and successful businessmen brothers (think Warren Buffet rich) altruistically abandon their businesses and form an organization that will help the afflicted. Their technology borrows sleep from those who can sleep and gives it to the needy. If the borrowed sleep is pure, the sufferers regenerate their own ability to sleep. The disease is cured for them. The problem is to find donors who can donate pure sleep. There is only one donor, in the US and the world, who has the purity necessary, Baby A. She is not even a year old when she becomes the sole donor of sleep pure enough to cure the ill. She can donate up to six hours sleep per day. Baby A’s mom is pleased to help; the baby’s father less so. A conflict throughout the story is the father’s unwillingness to allow the continued participation of his daughter in saving the world. Trish Edgewater, our hero, will waffle back and forth on the ethics of using the infant hero Baby A. She will be responsible for convincing the parents of the need for continuing donations by the sole pure donor until such time a clone serum can be developed from Baby A’s donations.

The only problem is that this novel made such a profound effect on me that I am going to have to take a break before starting something new. Anything after this book will be less fun. ( )
  ajarn7086 | Sep 8, 2016 |
Original and entertaining

Not the most coherent book I've ever read, but I was drawn in by the originality of the idea that insomnia had become a lethal and debilitating disease. Very creative plot and entertaining as hell. A bit disappointed with the ending but was a quick read, as I finished it in a sitting. ( )
  BrittanyLyn | Jun 21, 2016 |
Great premise, but I think this could/should have been a longer work. I feel like she forgot to write an ending, and not in the purposeful way some stories are left open for the reader to imagine/interpret, but more in the I-got-bored-with-this-story-and-moved-on-to-other-things way. ( )
  BraveNewBks | Mar 10, 2016 |
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