Book Review: Karen Russell’s “Sleep Donation”

By Cole Bubenik

Sleep vans, miracle babies, tent towns filled with poppy fields and sleep-bringing intoxicants all mesh together in Karen Russell’s newest, digital only novella, “Sleep Donation.” Russell is a revolutionary mind in the world of short fiction; her breakthrough 2011 novel, “Swamplandia!”, was one of three finalists for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, and her short stories have been published in a variety of publications including The Tin House, The New Yorker, and The Best American Short Stories. Without a doubt, Russell is a serious and compelling voice in the short story world, and for good reason: her stories push the boundaries of reality and fiction, while simultaneously infusing the pulpy notions of science fiction and magical realism with the metaphorical notions of the high literary world. “Sleep Donation” is no exception.

From the start of “Sleep Donation,” Russell doesn’t hold back. She launches right into the premise of the entire novella: following the life of Trish, a woman working for the Slumber Corps, dedicated to finding sleep donors to donate much needed dreams to a populace plagued by its inability to sleep. It sounds like a mouthful, and in many ways it is, but Russell manages to pull it off with absolute grace. This is the typical design of Russell’s fiction: set seemingly ordinary characters within a strange and magical world, pit them against some astronomical or apocalyptic odds, and see how they react. What results are short stories that are both innocent yet monumental. Sentences which draw deep from the reservoir of monotonous life and manage to leave the reader emotionally drained as well as mentally invigorated.

“Sleep Donation” is a prime example of the true versatility of Russell’s writing. Russell is a writer best known for her short stories and in such, and so, it seems, at first, a little wonky to read a work of Russell’s that extends past the twenty page count.“Sleep Donation” is not small, but at the same time it is. Separated into twenty-four chapters—some long and others no more than three lines—“Sleep Donation” is a simple but worthy read. I managed to read it, off and on, within two days; mostly reading during fifteen minute breaks at work, and one before-sleep reading marathon. It’s a simple book, and the digital format of it is absolutely beautiful (I’ll plug reading it at Atavist.com here as I found its platform gorgeous and its audio book was equally compelling).

However, the true beauty of Russell’s work comes from her masterful use of language. At times it can feel as if Russell is simply spitting out words; her sentences become a jumble of mystical jargon, a patchwork of words and sentences, metaphors and hidden meanings. Yet, as complicated as they are, each one functions in a lyrical way: colliding and cascading, subverting and exceeding, meshing into a crescendo of literary worth. In addition to the metaphorical, Russell is a mastermind of physical description, describing characters as “middle-aged Irish twins, clean shaven and built like longshoremen. Externally, they have slate eyes and cranberry-red hair balding in identical horseshoe patterns.” However Russell simultaneously characterizes them best when she disregards visual input and says that each “has his own uniquely fucked emotional metabolism.” When I read Russell’s work, I find myself longing for her longwinded descriptions of things, desperately seeking out the raw emotion that she tucks deep into those special, seemingly innocuous sentences.

Perhaps this is the best case for what Russell’s stories—“Sleep Donation” especially—are to me: innocuous. What starts out as seemingly a whacky story about a world plagued by its inability to sleep, quickly becomes a compelling story on love, loss, growth, and the internal struggle between right and wrong. Russell’s characters are not perfect, nor should they ever be: her characters are strange and maladjusted: Trish usesthe death of her sister, Dori, to compel complete strangers to donate their precious sleep, Jim, the head of the Slumber Corps is caught in illicit acts, and Mr. Harkonne, Baby A’s father, lingers around the infamous Night Worlds. No character is free from fault, and of course, in a typical Russell format, this catches up with them and is turned on its head, leaving each character to contemplate the justification of his or her actions. Much of the story centers around Trish’s relationship to the “miracle baby”, Baby A: a baby capable of supplying the Slumber Corps with a universal string of sleep. As the small story unfolds, we watch Trish grow dynamically as a person, contemplating her own involvement with the Slumber Corps and her usage of sister’s death to gain sleep donations. With Russell, there is no right and wrong for the world exists in the middle of an apocalyptical catalyst, one in which the characters are forced to choose their own faiths while simultaneously re-evaluating the moralities that existed within the “old” world.

“Sleep Donation” is worth the read for any Russell fan, but may not be the best choice for those who haven’t read Russell before. While certainly an excellent example of the power of Russell’s prose, “Sleep Donation” can feel rushed and sloppy at times. The narration can feel a bit jilted, as if it knows where it wants to go but doesn’t know how to get there. This is largely a result of the format of Russell’s work which is not quite a short story and not yet a novel. The story seems to have a footing in both worlds: trying to be both an impactful novel and a short-but-sweet short story. This isn’t a bad quality for those familiar with Russell’s other works. In fact, this is what makes “Sleep Donation” such an interesting work, and as a result Russell such a compelling author.

Ultimately “Sleep Donation” works so well because the format fits the world it occupies: a world in the middle of a massive potential extinction moment. The digital Novella format reciprocates this feeling by moving away from the traditional print-based-medium to a more flexible and rapidly growing online format. While the ending does come suddenly and can leave you craving more, this is simply the result of Russell’s style of writing. Russell focuses her stories on the ultimate continuation of life, and, like life, there are not always abrupt and satisfying endings, but rather continual changes which prompt growth. Overall, I would absolutely recommend “Sleep Donation”, especially as a summer read; its light size and powerful prose will leave you both satisfied and thoroughly interested as you sit by the pool or by the shore, contemplating those hours of rest you’ve finally got a chance to catch back up on.


 *1 | Illustration by Cody Bubenik
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The author

Cole Bubenik is the Co-managing editor of The Feminine Inquiry, a short story writer, and a graduate from the University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. English. He writes things which are domestic, apocalyptic, fantastic, romantic, and at all times queer.

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