Sleep no more: Samantha Harvey’s memoir of insomnia.
The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping, by Samantha Harvey, Grove Press, 175 pages, $24
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When English writer Samantha Harvey can’t sleep, she becomes “a wild animal enduring a cage.” She is routinely up for forty hours straight, going many nights with no rest, and getting only a few hours when she gets any at all. Her new memoir, The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping, is about a long battle with insomnia and documents a crisis of faith—in her home country, in language, and in life. It’s a far cry from the dilettantish sleeplessness described in Jenny Offill’s recent novel, Weather: “Insomnia as a badge of honor. Proof that you are paying attention.”
Harvey, the author of four novels, is kept up by many things: noise, Brexit, the inadequacy of therapists and doctors, “the fraudulence of words,” and the dark regrets of middle age. But what triggered the worst panic was the sudden death of her cousin Paul, an adventurous cyclist whose body was found two days after he died alone in his apartment. Near the beginning of the book, she writes him a letter filled with facts from Google about what will happen to his corpse as it rots underground. Mind ablaze with these thoughts, she goes “feral” many nights, pulling out her hair, pacing, screaming, and smashing her head against the wall. In the morning, she emerges feeling not tired, but “assaulted.”
Harvey has tried many unhelpful remedies and is sadly familiar with the mild-mannered dictums of “sleep hygiene.” The medical professionals are patronizing. The drugs and supplements— “Nytol, Sominex, Dormeasan drops, CBD oil, magnesium powders, passion flower, hop strobiles, melatonin, 5HTP . . . Zopiclone, Diazepam, Mirtazapine”—don’t work. Equally ineffective: acupuncture, puzzles, podcasts, earplugs, white-noise machines, Buddhist mantras, gratitude diaries—you name it. She’s done it all, and then some. Sometimes she smiles in bed, trying to convince her brain that she’s happy enough to doze off. As the hours tick past, cheerful bargaining becomes recrimination and a desperate scrabbling for the roots of her wakefulness:
I spend the night searching the intricacies of my past, trying to find out where I went wrong, trawling through childhood to see if the genesis of the insomnia is there, trying to find the exact thought, thing or happening that turned me from a sleeper to a non-sleeper. I try to find a key to release me from it. I try to solve the logic problem that is now my life.
The Shapeless Unease doesn’t offer a solution to this problem. The prose has the washed-out tone of a writer who has suffered too much for too long. Bleary-eyed, Harvey tends to ramble. She loosely corrals her thoughts in many stylistic kennels: stream of consciousness, the future tense, therapeutic fragments, a case study of herself; or in philosophical wanderings about, for example, the word great in British culture or how the language of the Amazonian Pirahã tribe has no way of expressing abstraction or recursiveness. Harvey also includes shards of fiction, periodically cutting to a story about men who rob bank machines (one of whom is named Paul, like her cousin). The book’s shagginess is surely intentional—art mirroring life, as advertised in the title. Yet your patience for this strategy will depend on how much you recognize yourself in Harvey’s burnt-at-both-ends protagonist, as well as on your taste for very dry gallows humor. After one agonized section about grief, death, and miscarriages, a disembodied voice offers this anodyne advice, “Why don’t you spray some lavender on your pillow?”
Harvey writes that she’s trapped in “a vicious circle of Euclidean perfection.” It’s exhausting. She notes how a fear of insomnia is a symptom of insomnia that soon becomes its cause. She tries meditation and counseling but feels like a failure when they don’t work, which makes her more stressed, less able to sleep, and more in need of meditation and counseling. Most exasperating for Harvey is trying to explain the problem to the professionals paid to help her relax. If she doesn’t convey her suffering vividly enough, they’ll suggest something comically mild—warm milk! Get out of bed when you can’t sleep! If she’s too vivid, she’ll be written off as hysterical. Harvey observes how physicians distance themselves by diagnosing her problem as “psychological, not as such biological, and therefore my own responsibility.” Before long, she starts to second-guess both the way she describes her perceptions and the perceptions themselves.
Reading Harvey, I felt similarly adrift. I worried that she was unraveling on the page and wondered if she was being a little self-indulgent. She seems to sense this danger and abruptly changes tack, and then spins out again and again. I started to see her pain clinically, like one of her annoying doctors. But I couldn’t believe that I was that unfeeling—in some sense, I’ve been to the terrible place she’s writing from. So, I’m on her side. But then . . . what was she saying again? Where are we? The logic of no sleep is comparable to dream logic, but at least you get to wake up from a dream. Harvey knows this bind. An orderly rendering of a shapeless problem would be facile. So, she risks alienating us, pursuing a truer portrait of personal disintegration, sparing us no side of it. She anxiously stalks her pain in search of a revelation, hoping to discover why she couldn’t sleep, but, more pressingly, what insomnia means. That meaning never comes into focus—and sometimes suffering is just suffering.
But Harvey’s dark night of the soul is about death as much as it is about not sleeping. Writing about Paul, she brilliantly conveys what happens when death stops being just a word, a placeholder for a truism about existence that we stopped paying attention to. In these passages, the writing is urgent and unignorable. She makes you feel the falsity of our deepest illusion, the one summed up in an old Steven Wright joke: “I intend to live forever. So far, so good.”
David O’Neill is a writer in New York, an editor of Bookforum, and the coeditor of Weight of the Earth: The Tape Journals of David Wojnarowicz, published by Semiotext(e).