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7 stories for sleepless nights.

Katie Yee

February 24, 2022, 10:13am

Maybe you’re a little shy about sleep. Maybe you try to summon it with chamomile tea and blackout curtains, courting it like a lover who does not return your affections. If you stumbled upon this on one of your sleepless nights, perhaps the characters in these stories will be relatable and provide you with some good company in these lonely hours. This one’s for the melatonin-takers.

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kim fu lesser known monsters

Kim Fu, “Sandman” in Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century
(Tin House)

In this delightful story, the eponymous Sandman visits a woman named Kelly, appearing in her bedroom as a mysterious figure in a gray hood. She is strangely calm about the whole thing. He climbs on top of her, and well: “A trickle of sand touched her lower lip. Sand poured out from within his hood, in a thin, continuous stream. She parted her lips, opened her throat as if to sing. She still couldn’t see his face, but she sensed that the sand was traveling from his mouth and into hers, the matte gold dust glowing dully.” It’s a strange and somewhat erotic dance the two of them have. He does not visit her every night, and she just wants to dream like everyone else. Hey, maybe even your restlessness makes you special to someone.

Samantha Harvey, The Shapeless Unease
(Grove Press)

The Shapeless Unease, much like insomnia itself, is hard to categorize. It’s a debut memoir, zeroing in on the year Samantha Harvey stopped sleeping. But it also reads like poetry and slices the human brain open like psychology. It invites you to pull back the curtain on other cultures, the way their language reflects the way they experience memory and time. It’s one of the most expansive, invigorating books you’ll read on the subject, which is to say: you definitely won’t be lulled to sleep by its contents. In fact, you’ll likely devour it in one night.

Vikram Paralkar, Night Theater

Vikram Paralkar, Night Theater
(Catapult)

There are some books whose premise hinges on taking place over the course of a very specific amount of time. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin or Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, to name two, are books that take place in one day. But there’s something quite enchanting about a book whose events unfold under the cover of a single night. It reads like a kind of mythology. The star of Night Theater is a surgeon working in rural India. But one fateful evening, a family crosses the threshold into his clinic. They tell him that they have been killed, but that they may have a second chance at life if he can heal their wounds by sunrise…

Rachel Yoder, Nightbitch

Rachel Yoder, Nightbitch
(Doubleday)

Perhaps you are a mother. Perhaps your child has thrown off your circadian rhythm, and that is why you are staring at the screen in the wee hours of the morning. Or perhaps you have discovered your teeth have grown sharper and the hair at the back of your neck has grown thicker? Perhaps the mourning of your artistic ambition in favor of domestic bliss is manifesting in a funny way. Perhaps you have realized that, much like the protagonist in Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch, you are turning into a dog, running wild at night. May you be free in these hours!

Karen Russell, Sleep Donation
(Vintage)

If you’ve read Karen Russell before, you already know this novella is going to read like a dream and stick with you like a nightmare. She has this ability to lull you in: with her care of language, with her vulnerable characters. But there is always something sinister lurking. In this case, it’s an epidemic of insomnia. And because Karen Russell is wildly imaginative but darkly realistic: in this world, there is already a corrupt company trying to “help.” As the title implies, healthy dreamers can donate sleep to those afflicted with insomnia. But of course there’s a catch. Of course there are also infectious night terrors.

yan lianke the day the sun died

Yan Lianke, tr. Carlos Rojas, The Day the Sun Died
(Grove Press)

One evening, a fourteen-year-old looks out his window and sees a strange sight: his neighbors are roaming the streets, going about their normal routines as though they cannot distinguish between day and night. Are you picturing it? Hundreds of people sleepwalking in tandem? Terrifying. What’s even more terrifying: as the hours draw out, they start violating social norms, acting on their basest desires. It’s up to this kid and his parents to save their community, and they’ve got to do it (you’ve guessed it) before sunrise. Really makes you wonder what acts of heroism happen when most people are stuck dreaming.

Marina Benjamin, Insomnia
(Catapult)

Insomnia sucks, for sure, but there is also something a little seductive about the concept of being up all night, caught up in your passions. Marina Benjamin is willing to lean into this angle, seeing sleeplessness not as a monster to be banished or ashamed of but as something we can learn from. What does it tell us about the way our minds work? What can it show us about our creativity? I know when I think of a Writer, I picture someone with half-finished cups of coffee (or whiskey) everywhere, furiously scribbling while the moon shines on proudly from the window. But where does this romanticism come from? Insomnia will take you on a tour of our relationship to sleep: through art, literature, philosophy, even mythology. In a sense, are we not all Penelope, unraveling the weaving of the day?

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