Sleep grows elusive in Karen Russell’s new, nightmarish novella

Like many of the bizarre scenarios Karen Russell imagines in her fiction — an afterlife in which former U.S. presidents are transformed into horses, say, or a chilling government plot to turn young women into human silkworms — the premise in her allegorical new novella is unsettling. But this time the nightmare hits closer to home. In Sleep Donation, set in a dystopian near future, a lethal plague of insomnia is spreading through the overstimulated, anxious population, leaving thousands of Americans unable to dream or sleep. They’re desperate for an REM cycle to stave off death, but there are few cures for their peculiar wakefulness.

“They file for dream bankruptcy, appeal for Slumber Corps aid, wait to be approved for a sleep donor,” narrator Trish Edgewater tells us. “It’s a special kind of homelessness ... to be evicted from your dreams.”

A Miami native shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Swamplandia in 2012 and winner of a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2013, Russell specializes in creating fantastical worlds that hum with recognizable rhythms. She excels at marrying the commonplace with the extraordinary. Sleep Donation may sound like pure science fiction, but with straight-forward and often amusing prose, Russell makes the point of her parable clear: What happens to us as a society, as individuals, when we’re so saturated with information and noise and buzz that we lose touch with the most basic part of our nature?

Trish Edgewater must ponder that and other questions. The MVP of the Slumber Corps — a nonprofit agency dedicated to providing donated sleep to insomniacs — Trish is a champion recruiter, able to secure donations by telling (and retelling) the heartrending story of her sister’s death from lack of sleep. (“The official cause of death was organ failure. I know it doesn’t sound like much, on paper.”)

Like anyone ravaged by grief, Trish feels she’s keeping her sister alive, in a way. “[W]hat am I doing, if not reseeding my dead sister into as many fertile minds and bodies as possible?” But she’s beginning to have doubts about her job and her enigmatic employers. Her prize recruit, Baby A, is a universal donor whose pure, perfect slumber has saved hundreds of lives, with many other patients still awaiting her healing transfusions. Baby A’s mother wants her infant daughter to continue her heroic role until a synthesized version of her sleep can be manufactured. Baby A’s father, however, resents the demands of the Slumber Corps. Trish understands his combativeness. She promises the Corps will never overdraw the baby, but “I make this promise at a moment when people are plunging their straws into any available centimeter of shale and water, every crude and uranium and mineral well on earth, with an indiscriminate and borderless appetite.”

Available only as a digital download starting Tuesday, Sleep Donation is kissing cousin to the stories from Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Russell’s last collection. It’s got more plot going for it, but using this particular format helps Russell narrow her focus while she examines topical fears and the general unease of a population that senses it’s on the brink of cataclysmic change. Consider the wave of panic unleashed when an anonymous sleep donor (tagged “Donor Y”) infects the insomniacs with an undetected nightmare. Lawsuits are filed. The infected, terrified by the nightmare they can’t remember, begin to commit suicide. Donors grow too terrified to donate. The sleepless refuse transfusions lest they get infected, too. The Slumber Corps responds with a massive public relations blitz that feels awfully familiar.

Fortunately Russell, also the author of the story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, uses humor to balance her dark imagination. Sleep Donation isn’t a lecture; she seems to be having some fun here. “This is our training,” Trish says by way of describing the ease with which she agrees to a sexual encounter with a co-worker. “Most of our time is spent asking strangers for donations. There are, of course, no consent forms to sign for this kind of transaction.” An alphabetical list of contagious nightmares includes “Aorta, burst” and “Abomination, horned” and “Avalanche, live burial.” A group of patients infected by Donor Y become “misery celebrities.” You can envision the reality show sure to follow.

In the end, Trish uncovers troubling revelations about the Slumber Corps and must answer an unsettling question: “Does it matter if we mean what we say, if the mere fact of the utterance saves lives?” Her conclusion is not surprising, but it’s well-earned in Russsell’s intriguing, imperiled world.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.