By Karen Russell
A crisis has swept America. Hundreds of thousands have lost the ability to sleep. Enter the Slumber Corps, an organization that urges healthy dreamers to donate sleep to an insomniac. Under the wealthy and enigmatic Storch brothers the Corps’ reach has grown, with outposts in every major US city. Trish Edgewater, whose sister Dori was one of the first victims of the lethal insomnia, has spent the past seven years recruiting for the Corps. But Trish’s faith in the organization and in her own motives begins to falter when she is confronted by “Baby A,” the first universal sleep donor, and the mysterious “Donor Y.”
Sleep Donation explores a world facing the end of sleep as we know it, where “Night Worlds” offer black market remedies to the desperate and sleep deprived, and where even the act of making a gift is not as simple as it appears.
There are several reasons why I found Sleep Donation an intriguing novella. Let’s discuss thematically.
Everyone is talking about sleep these days.
People don’t sleep enough! Not sleeping enough will kill you! Attempting to drive while tired can be worse than driving drunk!
I’ve seen these sorts of headlines everywhere. Even today there was an article on the Huffington Post about a study in the journal Sleep (I swear, there’s a journal or club for everything) that discusses how most work days begin too early and a more effective workforce would be one which allowed employees to set their start time. (Read more here.)
Karen Russell approaches sleep in a nefarious way which is chilling because all the negative effects are possible. The human body needs sleep. It is integral to life. In her world, hundreds of thousands of people have lost the ability to sleep and eventually will die unless they can be given donated sleep from someone who is not an insomniac. The Slumber Corp collects the donated sleep and then forwards it along to be given to insomniacs. (I appreciate that the science is not important to the story so is nice and vague.)
While this is a crisis, it appears manageable until Donor Y’s contribution is used. Recipients of Donor Y’s sleep begin to have such horrifying nightmares that they begin to do anything to stay awake. They can’t describe what happens in the nightmares but it is so bad that they force their bodies to stay awake, ultimately resulting in deaths.
This is where Baby A enters the equation. Baby A sleeps beautifully and is a universal donor. Anyone can receive Baby A’s sleep and their insomnia is cured. Baby A’s donations are critical with the advent of Donor Y’s nightmares. It is the only hope for those who fear sleep more than death.
Which leads us to…
Trish Edgewater is the single best fundraising for the Slumber Corps. She doesn’t solicit funds; she solicits donations. And her story is that of her sister Dori who was one of the first to die of insomnia. Trish tells the story as if it just happened, every time, and her tears inspire others to donate their sleep and their children’s sleep.
Having worked for non-profits, fundraising can be a tricky thing. It helps if you truly believe in the mission so are sincere in your request. Then there is the dance between the fundraiser and the potential donor. Push too hard too fast and the donor is lost. Take too long to close the deal and the donor is lost. It is an art to telling your story, convincing the donor and having them become a true believer of the mission, so much so that they will part with money, time or, in this instance sleep, for your group.
Trish is the one who inspired the parents of Baby A to donate the baby’s sleep and once Donor Y’s nightmares spread, she must continue to manage the parents to allow additional withdrawals from Baby A. The mother drank the Kool-Aid and does not need any convincing. The father is another matter. He challenges Trish to consider what she is asking for.
At what point has too much sleep been taken from his child? Will this harm his child later in life? Why them? Why his baby? Why does Trish keep pushing?
These questions swirl in Trish’s mind and make the telling of Dori’s tale more difficult. Her numbers drop. She is unable to solicit like she used to.
Probably because of…
The immergence of the third theme was when I realized Russell had packed a lot into one novella. I’ll have to be dodgy here because the ethical debate surrounding Sleep Donation ties directly to the ending.
Suffice it to say, Trish Edgewater learns information about Baby A what puts her in an ethical dilemma. That, combined with the child’s father constantly pushing her to question what she is doing, creates great stress for Trish. She used her sister’s story to help other but she begins to find it difficult to continue this tact. It is exploitative in a way she hadn’t considered. Trish wonders if she is exploiting Baby A as well.
Not really, but again, the ethics woven throughout the novella come together at the end. It’s worth following Trish’s journey to see what she chooses to do. We all have choices to make. Even when we believe we’re doing the right thing, we must question our choices.
Sleep Donationresonated for me because I have been in this sort of situation in the past and had to make tough decisions, sometimes even leaving my job. Questions of integrity are always worth asking. You have to live with yourself, no one else.