THERE IS A SCENE in Lars Von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia where the depressive Justine (Kirsten Dunst) lies nude by a stream in the moonlight, gazing at the rogue planet Melancholia as it moves on its collision course with Earth. As Justine stares up at the oncoming planet, her depression becomes so profound, so all-consuming, that it mirrors Melancholia itself. Even more ominously, the growing weight of her mood seems to gravitationally draw the massive planet toward her, toward Earth, to destroy everything.
Two recent books find a similar parallel between deep despair and extinction-level events. Sleep Donation by Karen Russell and Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun share a central conceit — a rampant plague renders its victims sleepless and overturns society, threatening mankind’s survival and testing its morality. In Russell’s digital novella, Sleep Donation, America is in her seventh year of a sweeping insomnia epidemic. Years into the outbreak, there are countless conjectures about its cause — pollution, prescription medication, 24/7 media consumption — but still no scientific explanation. The insomniacs, dubbed orexins, suffer from a mysterious deficiency of the neurotransmitter (orexin) that regulates wakefulness, trapping them in a perpetual state of “hyperarousal.”
Russell’s world, set sometime in the near future, is recognizable in some ways and drastically altered in others. The sleep drought has had a number of disturbing effects on society. Some people have turned to a medical tourism industry for sleep treatment, while others, suffering from insomnia or fearing communicable nightmares, have chosen suicide. Trish Edgewater, the book’s narrator, is a recruiter for the Slumber Corps, a “not-for-profit” group assembled to help people sleep. Trish’s sister, Dori, was one of the first patients to die from the epidemic — “her mind crushed, in the end, by an avalanche of waking moments.” Trish leverages the horror story of Dori’s LD (“last day”) to recruit volunteers for sleep donation — the process by which unaffected individuals donate portions of their sleep to insomniacs. This transference of slumber — known as the sleepdraw — is a process as mysterious and frightening as the epidemic itself:
I don’t know how to describe the unique claustrophobia of a sleepdraw, if you’ve never been present for one, except to compare it to that electric, heavy feeling of air carrying seawater. A frightening, exhilarating charge permeates the entire atmosphere of the Sleep Van; an overpowering sense of ambient destiny, fate crushing in on all sides. This accompanied by a nostril-flaring, neck-prickling vertigo. What provokes this disorientation, says Dr. Peebles, is your body’s awareness of its proximity to an enveloping illusion — a dream, not your own, pumping out of a donor’s prone form. The unhosted ghosts of these dreams in transit, en route to facilities where they will be tested, processed, plated on ice, awaiting transfusion. World-blueprints.
Sleep Donation offers no explanation of the mechanism for sleep extraction or transfusion — it simply exists, the same way that the never-ending insomnia simply exists. Russell doesn’t care about explaining the how of her novella’s conceit. Rather, she is interested in using the specter of insomnia to illustrate a broader concern: humanity’s fading sense of hope in its own future.
The concept of sleep donation can be read, on the one hand, as a generous response to a public threat. The donators sacrifice some essential part of themselves (sleep) for the benefit of others. But the donation system also poses a chilling ethical dilemma. The sleep transfusion process “resets” many orexins, curing the sufferers of their insomnia forever (curiously, Sleep Donation doesn’t explore the side effects of donors sacrificing large chunks of their sleep). As the epidemic worsens, the demand for unpolluted sources of sleep skyrockets. But what are the moral limits of meeting these demands? Russell follows the question through when babies become the prime resource. Trish and the other recruiters begin searching them out because “they serenely churn forth a pure, bracing sleep, with zero adult terror corrupting it.”
Trish strikes gold in finding Baby A, an infant with such cleansing sleep that her donations become the most desirable on the market. Trish and the Sleep Corps determine that they are justified in extracting Baby A’s sleep due to the positive impact her donations will have on society. But secretly Trish is plagued with the terrible feeling her desire to serve the greater good is killing the innocent Baby A
In a world of institutionalized suffering, where all human exchange is seen in terms of donor and donee, seller and consumer, Russell’s characters become the makers of their own destruction, compelled to share their dreams and nightmares alike, regardless of the consequences.
Sleep Donation is a spare and strange book, written in prose both lyric and claustrophobic. It is the debut title from Atavist Books, a digital-first publisher (meaning it will also publish print editions) that grew out of The Atavist, an online, by-subscription publication of original nonfiction. Russell’s book features a digital, interactive cover designed by Chip Kidd.
Like Sleep Donation, the world of Kenneth Calhoun’s Black Moon has been upended by a mysterious insomnia epidemic. But unlike Russell’s linear narrative, Calhoun provides a polyphonic, propulsive story, driving the plot forward while juggling various perspectives in a series of nonlinear, interlinking narratives. The book follows four characters trying to survive the insomnia apocalypse — Biggs, searching for his insomniac wife; Chase, road tripping with his buddy through the crumbling world; Lila, wandering the streets in an owl mask; and Felicia, searching for her family and ex-boyfriend Chase.
In essence, Black Moon is a zombie story — an apocalyptic event occurs and as a result, the world is flooded with walking dead. Where Russell’s sleepless are non-threatening ghosts, Calhoun’s insomniacs stumble through the streets untethered from reality, unable to distinguish between loved ones and shadows, clad in “bizarre assemblages of clothing, or no clothes at all.” When they see others sleeping, the insomniac are rendered uncontrollably violent, and the story’s forward momentum is propelled by the insomniacs’ zombie-like wrath. “Their thoughts seem to cycle madly through a headspace bustling with contradictory signals,” Calhoun writes. “They only came into focus when in this highly agitated state, a sustained rage triggered by the sight of a sleeper.”
But like Night of the Living Dead or The Walking Dead, Black Moon is not really about the zombies. It’s about the unaffected individuals who must struggle for survival in a “slowly imploding world.” They live in constant fear of what Calhoun calls “the lawlessness of sleep.” Those who can still sleep are perpetually afraid that an insomniac might stumble upon them and fly into a murderous rage. Calhoun writes of the preliminary, more rational stages of insomnia:
He felt sleep trying to arrive in his body. It was like watching a wave rolling forward, advancing on the shore, but never actually crashing. Just rolling in place, endlessly. Frustration welled inside him. This is how it had been ever since the drugs stopped working. This is how it was for the entire world — sleep hovering over, feeling as if it would drop down over you any minute but never falling. It seemed to tease, playing little presleep movies, flashes of visions, yet the full show failed to unfurl. It was like realizing that some vital part of you had been lost. Like waking up in a hospital bed without your legs, or knowing your face has been forever altered by fire or violence. You were grotesquely diminished without it. You would die without it.
Early in the days of the insomnia apocalypse, each of the main characters loses someone important: for Biggs it is his wife; for Chase, his girlfriend; and both Lila and Felicia lose their families. They all spend the rest of the book searching for their loved ones, moving through the chaos of the insomniac world — the ruined infrastructure and dead bodies —in the hope that they might recover what was lost during the fall.
Even with the large-scale destruction, the unlikelihood of a cure, the sheer totality of the ruin — Calhoun’s characters refuse to let go of hope. They doggedly try to save the people they love in the face of doom. In this way, Calhoun reaffirms the human spirit. Yet his characters are haunted individuals. As they move through a world with no future, their thoughts are turned to the past. Secrets are revealed, buried regrets that seem to be a possible cause of the insomnia, as if their collective despair has pulled in a rogue planet that will crush them all. The world, Calhoun seems to be saying, is irrevocably bleak, and our quests to save who and what we love are fundamentally futile.
In one episode of the nihilistic TV show The Walking Dead, the formerly hopeful character Hershel comes to admit, “There is no hope for any of us.” One might think, after reading Black Moon, that this is Calhoun’s opinion too. The worldview of his first novel is one of fruitless struggle, where a black moon presides over the endless darkness of human history: “a sphere of sleeplessness that pulled at the tides of blood —an invisible explanation for the madness welling inside.”
Like Justine gazing at the doom-bringing Melancholia, both Sleep Donation and Black Moon stare into the void. But neither book is swept up in darkness; rather, each is concerned with the response of the individual spirit to catastrophe. When all hope is lost — when even our dreams have been taken from us — what are we to do? Neither book gives a clear answer but both are rich in ambiguity. They both recognize one dark truth, though: there are things so vital to our humanity that their loss is irrecoverable, and the memory of their existence is not so much a dream as a nightmare.