A Short Stay in Hell by Steven L. Peck
The short story genre has never held a huge amount of appeal to me, as I often feel like the author is either trying too hard to create a crazy amount of symbolism in an attempt to be “literary” or they leave me hanging, wanting a full-blown story with fleshed-out characters and detailed action, rather than fifteen pages of straggling nuance and half-hearted hints. But, Karen Russell’s newest release , “Sleep Donation,” drew me in with a fascinating concept and a novella length that I hoped would allow the story a depth beyond that of a traditional short story.
(Disclaimer: Before I go any further, I’m not bagging on all short stories. I am Poe’s biggest fan and love “The Lottery” and “The Monkey’s Paw” equally. But, I rarely pick up a collection of short stories, so this one diverges from my normal reading habits.)
The premises for “Sleep Donation” is a strong one- the US (and soon other countries) is hit with a lethal rash of insomnia that threatens to decimate the population. With little understanding of the disorder, volunteers work to provide sleep transfusions to those most in need. The main character, Trish Edgewater, works with one of these branches, convincing people to donate their healthy sleep (and that of their children), at task which she is supremely successful as she emotionally manipulates the donors through the tale of her own stricken sister, who died after nearly a month of sleeplessness.
For me, the highlight of this story is the connection between Trish’s use of her sister’s biography and the use of dreams to create life. Both are giving power to stories, which creates a decidedly post-modern feel to the writing. And in the end, does Trish’s telling and retelling of her sister’s story serve to memorialize her beloved family member or does it cheapen her suffering through its prostitution? It’s an interesting idea, about how the “owner” of a story uses and manipulates that tale for their own benefit or that of others.
If only the whole tale held up to that same intriguing standard. But it doesn’t. There are too many gaps in the details to make me really love this story. (I want to love it. I think it has a solid foundation, but it crumbles under missing mortar.) For example, I want to know more about the insomniac’s disorder- more about the science behind it. Is it caused by a virus or is a plague of modern making when people can’t step away from the glow of their various devices? Is it contagious or merely addictive? Also, Russell is pretty vague about the treatment. We know that dreams from healthy sleepers can be transfused, in true Red Cross style, but how? How does a sufferer receive those dreams and what does that process feel like for both the giver and the receiver?
In the end, much like the receivers of the donated hours of sleep, I just wanted more.
The irony of the timing of this read was that I read the entire thing on Sunday night when I couldn’t sleep. Yes, that mid-afternoon nap and then Pepsi with dinner may have contributed to my sleeplessness, but still, I read this one cover to cover (okay, first finger-swipe to last, since it is only being released in ebook form, at least for now), sometimes in awe at Russell’s literary craftsmanship and at others baffled by seemingly missing, yet key, details. By 2AM though, I came down square on the center of the fence with this one, meaning Karen Russell’s novella, “Sleep Donation” earns a middle of the road:
(See my review of Karen Russell’s best-seller, Swamplandia here: https://insearchoftheendofthesidewalk.com/2012/02/10/swamplandia-by-karen-russell/)