An Excerpt of Sleep Donation

A new book by Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia

Sleep Donation Excerpt

If you want to fall asleep faster, reduce stress, and boost your mood, join us as we Read to Sleep! We’re committing to a healthier habit of picking up a book at bedtime instead of staring at a screen. We’ve got recommendations for you here!

A haunting novella from the uncannily imaginative author of the national bestsellers Swamplandia! and Orange World: the story of a deadly insomnia epidemic and the lengths one woman will go to to fight it.

The boardwalk is only lit at intervals. Wide orange planks alternate with stripes of raw night. Fifty yards ahead of us, shadows acquire gender, features, then slide back into anonymity. We step onto the wooden platform and walk through a cracked neon rainbow that buzzes twelve feet above us. It’s the old entrance to the county fair. A relic from more innocent times, pre–Night World, resuscitated by some insomniac electrician. Now a grim arcade spills before us: stalls that advertise midnight barbers, disbarred sleep doctors, bartender- pharmacists. Dark green and purple tents ripple across the grass like Venus flytraps, their bright flaps swallowing people. Kiosks hawk antidotes to thought, to light:


The boardwalk unwinds for seeming miles, and I know from adolescent explorations that eventually these fairgrounds dis- solve into a true woods, a nature preserve of spruce and pines.

When I tell Mr. Harkonnen that this is my first visit to a Night World, he is unaccountably pleased.

We draw up to one of the speakeasy tents.

The chalkboard lists the evening specials.

Medicines, a thousand of them, to induce sleep.

            Medicines to stay awake—sunlight bulleting through an elective insomniac’s brain.

            “In here,” says Mr. Harkonnen. “Ladies first.”

It’s very easy, I discover, to comply with him. Since strap- ping into his sedan, I’ve felt unworthy of objecting to anything that’s happening. Once the tent’s flaps close, I find myself crowding as near as I can comfortably get to Mr. Harkonnen’s sweat-damp left side. What a crowd. Near the flaps, a trio of twenty-somethings are sharing a pint of some dubious medicine. Tangerine bubbles fizz over the rim. Bubbles are rising in every glass in the joint, Mr. Harkonnen points out, marine blue and dark pink and lurid violet. So these aren’t your standard soda mixers, but some self-catalyzing enchantment. Threads of limber color rise to meet the insomniacs’ parched lips, as if, inside their pint glasses, these medicines are already doing the work of dreaming for them. Up and down the wooden bar, insomniacs sit a breath away from one another on the high, rickety stools. The way they booze as a unit makes me think of Vikings rowing a longship. Lifting their glasses, slamming them down. Fighting the waves, I assume, inside their bodies.

Sink-and-Swim is the name of one of the advertised soporifics.

But the bartender-pharmacist keeps splashing grapey black and auroral fluids into alternating glasses, and you get the sense some tide is truly turning. In this Night World, the two groups are generating their own countercurrent. They laugh, gulp, swallow, they even seem to blink, to one rhythm.

I doubt it’s my right, as a healthy sleeper, to read the scene this way and to be enchanted by the Night World’s unlikely friendliness; but I am anyhow.

The footage I best remember, from local television depictions: This same fairground looked like a refugee camp. Doz- ens of bone-thin bodies swarming the bonfires, flumes of red flame in metal cans, their shoulder bones jutting rhythmically through the free blankets from the Night World dispensary, like big cats gathered around a kill.

Next to us, a woman’s head is rolling on a man’s shoulder, her pink curls tumbling onto his chest like a cloud at anchor. I think she’s an elective whom Donor Y infected. Her eyes are milky and ewe-blank, hugely dilated; she jumps when she yawns. “Keep me up,” she demands, and this scarecrow of a man bellies around on the barstool to face her, tucking his shirt into his waistband; obligingly, he strokes her moist forehead, the strawberry rash on her cheeks and chin, the cuticle-width scar under her left eye. Trying to keep her in this world with him, awake. He’s an orexin, I think—someone who wants only to sleep—and he’s not looking so hot himself: eggy eyes, poached by his illness; skin like white wax. On a calendar, I bet these two are in their early thirties. The whole time his fingers brush her pimpled hairline, he’s murmuring something into her earlobe, like her face is a story he’s reading to her. Her Braille memoir. He reads on, and with each syllable, her smile widens. With his big thumbs, he prizes her eyelids open. This he does for the exhausted, terrified woman with a clinical tenderness and focus—one species of sufferer trying to help another. I’m holding my breath. The man catches me watching, winks.

Are they a couple? I ask.

The man smiles.

“Sure. Met her five minutes ago, when I sat down here. You’re invited to the wedding.”

Recipients and donors. Donors and recipients. Variations of this couple’s exchange are happening with a hothouse spontaneity up and down the bar: people with equal but opposite afflictions, propping each other up.

This is my beautifully stable impression of Night World culture for maybe two more minutes; then something explodes near my head. Blue medicine leaks in an Arctic smear down the cabinet door. Whatever it is smells faintly of garlic. So much for romance. Near the tent flaps, a fight has broken out: two gizzardy LD-ers are haggling over their bar tab. It seems they have goaded each other into consuming two thousand dollars’ worth of some placebo-slush. They dispute the bill in hoarse screams: “That was your round, Leonard!” Napkins wag from their hands, covered in scrawled numbers, two rival accounts of their debts to each other—a bar tab that seems to stretch back to the Big Bang.

Mr. Harkonnen returns with our drinks. To avoid the brawl, we retreat further into the tent, choose stools next to a dark oak cabinet.

“Got us the cheap stuff,” he says.

“Okay. Thank you.”

Shooting Stars is the name of my medicinal cocktail.

I don’t ask what it does. Three sips in, my expectations go colorless. Then I find myself leaning against Mr. Harkonnen’s left side. Mr. Harkonnen smells like nothing unexpected: burned coffee grounds, Old Spice aftershave. These odors are like flung harpoons—they sail out of the Night World and back across the highway, wrenching whole continents of normalcy into this dark tent: malls and supermarkets, nonlethal sunsets, jarred tomatoes, orderly hedgerows, carpet cleaner, kitty litter, everybody’s junk mail piling up on tables, geese flapping across meridians on their winter-spring cycle . . . and soon I’m having to close my eyes to fight a supreme dizziness, as many times and seasons collide inside my chest. I take another long gulp of the cocktail. This time, the effect is immediate. Heat radiates outward until my skin feels ready to burst, until my skeleton is both holding me upright on the barstool and dissolving, inside me, into melting vertebrae, a million memories unstoppered in my brain, rising up my spine, flowing down, my body too small to contain them, shrinking even as the dizzy light expands in all directions, and no way to protect myself against the assault, this onslaught of sound and light, and nowhere to release it, all the aggregating echoes, Dori’s voice, our father’s, a thousand other whisperers. . .

I blink twice, rub my eyes: incredibly, the Night World tent is still here. I study my watch, relieved that I can read the numbers: three minutes have elapsed since we sat down. Beside me, Mr. Harkonnen is eating green pistachios out of an ashtray. He smiles at me. His face looks placid, in the illegible and alien way that stingrays’ bellies look placid as they smooth along glass walls.

Copyright © 2014, 2020 by Karen Russell

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Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
Sleep Donation
By Karen Russell
Paperback $16.00
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