One of America’s finest fiction writers returns with an audaciously allegorical novella about sleep deprivation in an age of sensory overload.
As a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the author of a critically acclaimed novel (Vampires in the Lemon Grove, 2013, etc.) and two story collections, Russell seems to be having some fun here, using the novella form and e-book format to put creative ingenuity to Orwellian use. The year is sometime in the near future, when the omnipresence of communication and connecting devices, the 24-hour news cycle and other sources of overstimulation have turned insomnia into an epidemic, even a plague. Sleep donors (like blood or plasma donors) can be a godsend for those suffering, particularly if those donors sleep undisturbed, without nightmares, like a baby. In this novella, Baby A is the ultimate donor, the silver bullet, the one whose sleep has universal benefits. (Other donors need to be more closely matched, as with blood types.) Our narrator, Trish, has recruited Baby A through the child’s parents and effectively sells the donor program to them by invoking the death of her own sister due to sleep deprivation. But the demands on Baby A eventually frustrate her father—a more reluctant participant than his wife—and he feels more concerned with what Baby A might suffer than with the benefits for society at large. At the other extreme from Baby A is Donor Y, whose nightmare-infected donation (an act of terrorism? an accident?) ultimately causes an international crisis, with many preferring the suicide of sleeplessness to a sleep that returns them to this nightmare. As the plot progresses, Trish feels that both she and Baby A have perhaps been equally exploited. Those who appreciate Russell’s literary alchemy might find this a little too close to science fiction, but it serves as a parable on a number of levels for a world that is recognizably our own.
More of a detour than a natural progression for the author, whose fans will nevertheless find this as engaging as it is provocative.