April 8, 2014KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsReading

First Sleep

I downloaded Karen Russell’s Sleep Donation last week on the same evening my partner and I were sleep-training (or trying to sleep-train) our four-month-old daughter. Why read about sleeplessness, when a harrowing form of sleeplessness (brought on by a trio of word-daggers: cry it out) awaited? I think I wanted the characters on the page (or screen, since Russell’s novella is digital-only) to suffer along with me. Imagine a starving reader, greedily digging into Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist.” “We’re all in this together,” the reader whispers, and he means it as a threat.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a vexed relationship with sleep. I’ve fought it; I’ve cursed it; I’ve outlasted it. Last year I published a poem called “Autobiography” in which the penultimate line reads, “Sleep is a kind of blind bliss.” A resolutely well-rested friend told me, over email, “I love the sleep stanza, but you’re not allowed to say ‘Sleep is a kind of blind bliss.’ I get to say that. You have to say, ‘Sleep is a mad prison that entombs me and which I submit to under only great duress.’”

A little more than a week ago, the Times published a piece in its Sunday Travel section called “The Quest for Sweet Dreams.” It lists some of the amenities that hotels and airlines are now offering weary travelers: zip-on mattress toppers, noise-canceling headphones, pillow mist. According to Russell A. Sanna, the executive director of Harvard Medical School’s division of sleep medicine, “Everyone in our country is sleeping an hour and a half less than they did last generation.” Furthermore (and this will come as no surprise), iPads and the like are erasing “boundaries and cycles between work, home, sleep, wake.”

Russell imagines, in Sleep Donation, a society in which sleep has become so elusive that transfusions are necessary. A plague of sleeplessness has descended: you can attempt to cry it out, walk it out, wait it out—but eventually it’ll kill you. And if you do manage to go to sleep, well, there’s also a plague of nightmares. I’ll have more to say about the book in my next post.

Here’s the second half of Wislawa Szymborska’s “Four in the Morning”:

The hour of and-what-if-nothing-remains-after-us.

The hollow hour.
Blank, empty.
The very pit of all other hours.

No one feels good at four in the morning.
If ants feel good at four in the morning
—three cheers for the ants. And let five o’clock come
if we’re to go on living.

And here are the best lines ever written about rest. The whole clip (from Vanya on 42nd Street) is worth playing, but Sonya’s benediction begins at the 3:53 mark:

Chekhov, by way of Mamet: “We shall rest. We shall rest.”