‘What Pea Disrupts Your Sleep, Princess?’

A Year of Not Sleeping
By Samantha Harvey

As if in unwitting aid of the malady they address, books about insomnia tend to be very dull indeed. Many are stuffed with statistics and unhelpful suggestions, like one of those oversize polyester-plumped sham pillows you see on the fancier beds — and just as likely to be flung in frustration to the floor. Samantha Harvey’s memoir of sleeplessness is more like a small and well-worn eiderdown quilt: It might not cover everything, but it both cools and warms, lofts and lulls, settling gradually on its inhabitant with an ethereal solidity.

Harvey is a well-regarded novelist in the United Kingdom, and perhaps the only part of this book that feels a little lumpy and uncomfortable is her working out in its pages an O. Henry-like short story about a husband who loses his wedding ring while robbing an A.T.M. More compelled by her predicament, namely stretch after stretch of not only little sleep (or “petite nuit,” as the French more melodiously put it) but no sleep at all, I found it difficult to care about this fictional character, or figure out if his crime and punishment represented anything larger about what disenchanted millennials have taken to describing as “late-stage capitalism.”

Not for nothing does the author’s own experience take place in 2016, that epoch of political shock during which a majority of her compatriots voted to leave the European Union, a.k.a. Brexit (“Why isn’t it called Ukexit,” Harvey wonders with the petty irritability of the sleep-deprived), and Donald J. Trump was elected over the pond. That these events have since been outdone by arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, with its attendant sleep disorders, only amplifies this small volume’s relevance and power.

Harvey is irked by Britain’s reassertion of borders, its self-aggrandizement, the gradual slippage of the word “Great,” originally intended to mean the gathering of small principalities, into conservative boosterism and nationalist back-patting. Yet with dark but lush scenes in Wales and Wiltshire, her book is a very British (or UKish), slightly cynical retort to Peter Mayle’s rhapsodic “A Year in Provence” and all the “year ofs” that followed. A year has for a while now been a modish, manageable period for a memoir — there was the one of magical thinking (Didion), the one of the monkey (Patti Smith), the one of cooking with Julia Child. Here it seems altogether too neat.

For “The Shapeless Unease,” named for a phrase given to Harvey’s anxiety during a sermon delivered by an admiring Episcopalian priest to a congregation in North Carolina, plumbs the amorphous muck, the utter vertigo of “a life without sleep, where days merge unbounded.” If “writing is dreaming,” as the author suggests further, then not being able to sleep, a necessary condition for dreaming, is like a terrible writer’s block. A year might be a handy if arbitrary length for a memoir or novel, but a sleepless night stretches out like a blank page, the inability to fill it a writhing stasis.

Most literally, Harvey’s book is about time — not in the peppy, “it’s arrived” sense of those words, but in “its perpetual nagging. Time kicks, kicks, kicks its way in with the tip of a toe,” she writes. “Time, not life is what we live. Time, not life is what runs out.” It has run out for her cousin Paul, whose death (he was epileptic) prompts agonized and unflinching reflection. It ran out for a childhood dog, whose neglect in the aftermath of her parents’ divorce haunts her still. Or are physical causes preventing her from dropping off: Menopause, perhaps? she wonders, consulting doctors who seem to have no definitive answers, only drugs that offer but fleeting relief. Nutritional deficiencies? She is lectured about poor “sleep hygiene,” that increasingly common and loathsome phrase that suggests failure to achieve drift-off is a consequence of one’s own bad habits. We might indict too much time online, staring into screens’ sickly blue light. What is the internet, after all, if not shapeless unease? “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote. On the computer, more than the television with its soothing programming units, it is always three o’clock in the morning somewhere, less electronic hearth than garbage fire.

Harvey is aware hers is a first-world problem, a kind of luxury — “What pea disrupts your sleep, princess? A passing Audi?” she imagines one physician thinking — but also a deprivation of something absolutely essential, mad-making. Encouraged to have a “yes” mentality, she repeats the word in bed for hours, a latter-day Molly Bloom, merging it with the “eyes” she can’t effectively close.

“The Shapeless Unease” considers science and spirituality but ultimately rests, as it were, on language: its limits, and its possibilities. Harvey appeals to science and spirituality but is most soothed by poetry, by Philip Larkin’s conception of existence as “the million-petalled flower / Of being here.” If you too are a member of this lonely, late-night club that no one wants to belong to, you will find solace in his words, and hers.

And if you’re not? Never, ever tell anyone, even with kind intention, “You look tired!”

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