Karen Russell's Novella About Insomnia Epidemic Finds New Resonance In The Era Of COVID-19

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Karen Russell. (Michael Lionstar)
Karen Russell. (Michael Lionstar)

Author Karen Russell’s novella, "Sleep Donation," is eerily timely.

It tells the story of a fatal insomnia epidemic with people dying horrible, slow deaths by sleep deprivation. People are being tested to see if they have the antidote — dreams that can be harvested by the company Slumber Corps to help others sleep.

From testing sites to overwhelmed hospitals, the comparisons to today are curiously similar, but Russell wrote the book in 2014. At that time, acclaimed horror writer Stephen King gave it high praise, saying the novella is so frightening that it gave him nightmares.

But after only eight months, the online publisher that put out “Sleep Donation” closed up shop and the book became unavailable. Now, it’s out in a new paperback version, and Russell admits the reissue coming out now is “very weird timing” amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

“To be honest, I wish that there were not so many parallels,” she says. “I think I was imagining a different world when we were discussing this reissue. It's been such a vertiginous season, I think for all of us, that it's sort of hard to parse.”

The story follows Slumber Corps recruiter Trish, whose sister was one of the first victims of the deadly insomnia. She confronts an ethical dilemma when a universal sleep donor, a baby, is discovered.

Trish’s crisis of faith parallels 2020 when many people are feeling the erosion of trust in our institutions, Russell says. Trish is afraid this critical period will turn sleep into a commodity.

“Her great fear is that perhaps we're going to see new global markets emerging created by these crises and that this is just going to accelerate a kind of inequality where there's gonna be a nation of haves and have nots ... people who can rest and dream, and people who are just sort of wandering the night,” Russell says. “That doesn't seem so far off to me in the world we're really living in right now.”

Interview Highlights 

On putting this book out amid the COVID-19 pandemic

“I was really excited to have something that felt sort of like a whimsical riff on those [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] brochures. It seemed funnier, I think, to me a year ago and now we're living through such an unremittingly grim season, but I do sort of think there's a secondary epidemic of nightmares going around. I think we are all having these very vivid dreams.

"And at the time I was working with these amazing Italian artists, we were gonna come up with a nightmare contagion map with these sleep quarantine stations, you know, if you have a bad dream that recurs twice in a 72-hour period, you should report to your doctor and things like this. And so it was very strange when suddenly our emails sort of morphed overnight and they were saying, ‘We can't work on this right now. We're under lockdown ourselves.’ And suddenly we were all going to the CDC website for information instead of inspiration, and so it's been a very strange experience.”

On the inspiration for the story, including Gabriel García Márquez's novel, “One Hundred Years of Solitude”

“I'm sure that that insomnia plague in Macondo imprinted deeply on me. It's so beautiful, if people haven't read it. But I was also thinking about Jonathan Swift's 'A Modest Proposal' because at some point I thought this was going to be a satirical take on the ravages of our economy. And there's a little baby in this story, ‘Baby A.’ The Supreme Court ruled that babies and children can give donations of sleep to these sleep-starved Americans, and it just didn't seem a bridge too far to imagine a scenario like that. I feel like it sort of literalizes something that's already happening in our economy to just steal the literal dreams of children.

“This was sort of my first attempt to write science fiction, you know, a near future dystopia. And I think 'Dune' was a book that was so seminal for me, so that's a little wink to the other fantasy science fiction readers out there. I was really interested in those questions about is it possible to give a gift? What are the conditions where a gift is really given, and what is the line between a gift and something that's coerced?”

On how the book’s “night worlds” parallel the experience of COVID-19 long-haulers

“It's a pretty horrible world, and I feel like I really ran with that, the ‘what if’ of this kind of goofy premise, into a darker landscape than I had maybe anticipated at the beginning. But I will say there are these night worlds that start to kind of crop up where people, some of them are elective insomniacs, are infected with this nightmare that's so terrible that they give up sleep. And then some people, they're insomniacs and somehow they all converge on the periphery of cities and in these night worlds that kind of hawk black market remedies, and I can only think now, obviously like hydroxychloroquine or some of these other more dubious medicines that kind of snake oil salesmen are peddling for the coronavirus.

"But I thought of these places certainly not as utopias, but those were the most fun, beautiful scenes for me to write, thinking about the way that people can meet in weakness, and the kind of communities that can form and the solidarity that can come when you're really right on the edge. That is a powerful bond, I think, between people sometimes if you share a nightmare in the form of an illness.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

Book Excerpt: 'Sleep Donation'

By Karen Russell


"Sleep Donation" by Karen Russell. (Courtesy)
"Sleep Donation" by Karen Russell. (Courtesy)

Last July, the Supreme Court ruled that babies could be donors, with their parents’ consent. Babies are deep, rich wells for us. They serenely churn forth a pure, bracing sleep, with zero adult terror corrupting it. Since the new law went into effect, we Corps volunteers have been trying, with renewed zeal, to sign up whole families. We’ll tap the parents’ sleep, which is often useless to us (a fact we don’t advertise, of course), just to get a baby’s donation. “Pump me first,” the mothers implore, so overwrought that they vitiate their draws with cortisone. We do not discuss this with the women— their polluted sleep, the futility of their generosity. We draw from parents because the experience reassures them. Really, what the nurses are draining is these mothers’ fear of the unknown. They wake up, refreshed, with no memory of the draw, awash in goodwill.

Then we enroll their children in our donor program.

Four months ago, I pitched Mrs. Harkonnen at a drive outside the Piggly Wiggly grocery. I spotted a baby’s face pinking out of her pretty woven papoose, and I introduced myself. Mrs.
Harkonnen was an easy convert to the Slumber Corps, crying freely at Dori’s death story; the baby witnessed our exchange with that eerie calm babies have, dry-eyed and blank. Was her husband with her? No? Could I arrange to speak with him, get his signature? To dispatch a Sleep Van, we’d need both parents’ consent.

One week later, I paid a visit to 3300 Cedar Ridge Parkway to collect the consent forms. Mrs. Harkonnen greeted me on the porch with a shy smile, her hands starfished out in front of her; the nail polish was still wet. She’d remembered my name: “Trish! Come on in.” She’d put on red lipstick, was ready with a pot of decaf. Upstairs, the baby was crying; we’d both smiled automatically at the sound. “My husband’s with her. He signed your papers.” She pushed over the consent form; I saw that Felix Harkonnen’s autograph was freshly inked. “He’s a little worried about the procedure— she’s our first child, you know. He’s a very protective father.”

The note of apology in her voice unnerved me a little; this was perhaps my first intimation that Mrs. Harkonnen was a very special sort of donor. I’d never met a mother like this, for whom the gift of a daughter’s sleep seemed so matter- of- fact. Why did she assume her husband’s reluctance needed explanation?

“But I told Felix all about those poor people on the waiting list. Why this sleep donation is so important to them. How did you call it? A ‘life serum.’ ” Then she’d paused, staring intently at me, and I saw that I’d been wrong to think this woman was in any way naive. There was some shrewdness alive inside her kindness, a perspicacity that thrilled and frightened me, that
I did not understand. The quality of Mrs. Harkonnen’s attentiveness caused my whole body to prickle, as if invisible quills were lifting under my skin. This was a surprise. For the past eight months, I’d felt brain- dead and nerve- dead when I was not recruiting. I’d stumbled around in a daze during the periods between our Sleep Drives, those jagged white intervals of time, that I had formerly experienced, in unity, as “a day.”

“Your sister. I can’t stop thinking about her.”


I’d stared up at the unshaded bulb above the Harkonnens’ kitchen table. Gravity can be exploited in these situations; moisture slid into my pupils. A swimmy seepage of green light contracted back inside the white bulb. I did not cry. Once the kitchen went matte again, I was able to meet her eyes:

“Well, thank you, thank you very much for keeping her in mind. My sister would be here today, if we’d had Gould’s technology. . .”

Then my voice broke, and I had to really work to keep my grin from stretching into something crooked and hungry; my eyes felt suddenly dish- size, much too large for my face. Ordinarily
I only resurrect Dori during a pitch. That’s where I feel her. But that night I was certain that I sensed my sister’s presence in that stranger’s kitchen. Or almost certain. I badly wanted to see you, Dori, as you existed for Mrs. Harkonnen. Typically, my recruits receive the story of my sister’s death day with a mixture of sympathy and horror; many people give sleep as a kind of frightened oblation, a way to sandbag their healthy lives from her fate; if she “works” on them, they respond with a donation. But all most people ever really know about my sister’s life is how she died.

My smile became natural in response to Mrs. Harkonnen’s smile as she offered me a reheat on the black coffee, cream and sugar— Mrs. Harkonnen was the kindest and gentlest inquisitor
I’d ever met. Somehow she intuited all that I could not say about my sister, and she asked me only questions to which I possessed factual answers; I heard myself telling stories from our Pennsylvania childhood, these shadowy green memories of Dori that I’d never shared with any donor.

All this time, the baby had been wailing. At first, I’d been astonished by her volume. Once Mrs. Harkonnen got me talking about Dori, however, I’d stopped noticing, until I was barely aware that I was shouting to be heard. Then that pour of solar sound cut out. The infant’s silence was as loud as her screams had been, at least. We turned from the forms together, and there was Mr. Harkonnen. He was standing at the top of the stairwell, holding the baby.

I’ve changed my mind,” he said.

I stood, and so did Mrs. Harkonnen.

“Sit down,” Mrs. Harkonnen commanded me, suddenly steely. “Felix, we made a promise to these people— ”

Then I went perfectly still in their kitchen, holding chilly coffee, forgotten completely— recruiting people to a cause, I’ve found, often isolates you in strange spandrels, caught between a stranger’s intersecting planes of aversion and desire; in the case of the Harkonnens, I was a literal trespasser. “Wait here,” said the red-eyed Mrs. Harkonnen, smiling sheepishly at me, as if she needed only to check on something burning in the oven.

I eavesdropped on Mrs. Harkonnen’s woodpecker- drilling into the stout oak of Mr. Harkonnen: “We’re doing this. We have no choice. How can we live with ourselves otherwise? I won’t be able to live with myself.” As they argued on the stairwell, I closed my eyes and folded my hands on the kitchen table. I pictured a great fire fanning out through this house, consuming all obstacles. It was more a wish than a picture, to be honest. I’d willed the fire to eat a pathway to a yes.

I left 3300 Cedar Parkway with two signatures.

Four nights later, I dispatched a Sleep Van to the Harkonnen residence.

From Sleep Donation, by Karen Russell, forthcoming from Vintage Books, Copyright © 2014, 2020 by Karen Russell

This segment aired on September 29, 2020.


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Robin Young brings more than 25 years of broadcast experience to her role as host of Here & Now.


Samantha Raphelson Associate Producer, Here & Now
Samantha Raphelson is an associate producer for Here & Now, based at NPR in Washington, D.C.



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