The author of Swamplandia! brings her 2014 digital book to print, a dystopian tale about a nation in the throes of an epidemic of sleeplessness and the industry of "sleep donation" that has cropped up to help insomniacs. Slumber Corps' top recruiter Trish Edgewater questions the ethics of harvesting sleep from "Baby A," the first universal sleep donor, and becomes rattled by the nightmares infecting the populace from the slumber of "Donor Y."
In this novel, Ms. Russell creates a new illness. She describes its hold over a futuristic America with Twilight Zone-like inventiveness and the energy and brio of a natural fantasist with a proclivity for blending the real and surreal, the psychological and the sci-fi ... she immerses the reader in a world that is both recognizably familiar and nightmarishly dystopian. The novella becomes, at once, a kind of meditation upon the transmission of stories and dreams (something that books, paper or digital, do with magical ease), and an allegory about our overstimulated, sleep-deprived society and the sometimes self-serving sanctimony of NGOs and manic do-gooders, reluctant ever to let a crisis go to waste ... Preposterous as some aspects of her story may sound, Ms. Russell writes with such assurance and speed that she puts the reader under a spell for the duration of her story. She creates a fully imagined world with its own rituals and rules, and deftly satirizes the media and governmental responses to the plague of sleeplessness ... Ms. Russell’s account of sleepless patients and stolen sleep may not possess the fierce originality of her 2011 novel, Swamplandia!, or the cumulative power of her story collections...but it’s another testament to her fertile powers of invention.
Sleep Donation makes a turn into dark, murky territory where events become decidedly more horror-filled and morally fraught ... It recalls the World of Darkness amusement park in Swamplandia, as well as some futurized Ray Bradbury realm. What's so unique about Russell's style is that even when her stories take the inevitable plunge into frightful territory, she retains an inventive, vivid, almost buoyant way with words ... Despite unmistakable strains of allegory—here, for example, sleep trouble could be a metaphor for our oil dependency—Russell's narratives never venture into thinly veiled manifestoes. Russell would never be that obvious, and Sleep Donation further proves how fundamental her writing has become. If you're a fan of contemporary voices but haven't encountered hers yet, wake up already.
... lush sentences and speculative wit ... it is signature Russell: a fanciful, droll, elaborately thought-through allegory with a dark center. (People don’t always credit how grim this author can be, but to read Russell is to realize that you can have invention without joy.) ... Not that you will be reading Sleep Donation for the plot or even for the themes. You will be reading it for the pleasure of Russell’s language, which is acrid, luminous, and deft, and for the way she confuses the ordinary and the marvelous. She is a special kind of magical realist in that she is wholly committed to both registers ... Russell has diagnosed something elemental about the way we grasp for things we may or may not want ... matter-of-factness becomes an asset, heightening the weirdness by contrast and acquainting us with our readerly situation: bizarro world, level-headed and trustworthy narrator. In the magical realism of our own lives, that’s sort of how we see ourselves.