Early in Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the narrator explains why she is seeking deep, unremitting sleep: ‘Things were happening in New York City—they always are—but none of it affected me. This was the beauty of sleep—reality detached itself and appeared in my mind as casually as a movie or a dream. It was easy to ignore things that didn’t concern me.’
In her memoir The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping (Jonathan Cape), Samantha Harvey articulates the hunting that comes with sleeplessness: ‘Sleep. Sleep. Like money, you only think about it when you have too little. Then you think about it all the time, and the less you have the more you think about it. It becomes the prism through which you see the world and nothing can exist in relation to it.’
To live without sleep is to experience the world as hard and hyperreal. Nothing is inconsequential. Everything is thrust into the light of interrogation. This process of ruthless inquiry often happens when one is alone. Increasingly, I find myself lying awake each night reliving each day.
The basic scaffold of science divides information into three categories: known knowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns. The human brain instinctively seeks certainty, but unfortunately, life can offer no such thing. Instead, society creates constraints: timetables, timelines, time sheets. We also employ our own systems of reassurances whenever we encounter uncertainty: bad luck comes in threes; knock on wood; cross your fingers. And even if you don’t subscribe to sayings such as ‘everything happens for a reason’, the ways in which we communicate betrays our intrinsic desire to understand cause and effect. In English, our sentences are built in a linear fashion. The sequencing of even the smallest words are consequential.
Harvey is a novelist—up until now, her trust in words had been absolute. She describes words as having a sort of harnessing quality: ‘There is the comfort of organisation, of shepherding chaos, not trying to abolish it but shepherding it towards borders, taking away the problem of infinity and entropy.’
As Harvey’s sense of time disintegrates—days are no longer bookended by the soft edges of unconsciousness—her anxiety takes on fierce new dimensions.
As her sense of time disintegrates—days are no longer bookended by the soft edges of unconsciousness—her anxiety takes on fierce new dimensions. Harvey begins to question the fabric of her sentences: ‘I can rest my entire life on the cranky hinge of the word ‘if’. My life is when and until and yesterday and tomorrow and a minute ago and next year and then and again and forever and never.’
I recall the narrator, a writing teacher, in Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation— ‘“Tense! Tense!” the wife has always said to her students, trying to explain that it matters, that it illuminates things.’ I picture Harvey, unable to orientate herself using the reliable tools of grammar, wide awake and groping in the dark.
In recent weeks I have found myself carefully choosing prepositions, unsure how to position myself temporally. The tempo of the world has both slowed down and sped up. Of course, I am not alone. There are endless variations of the joke that March 2020 has felt as though it were ten, twenty, thirty years long. We all want to know when this pandemic is going to end.
The Shapeless Unease opens with a script:
Friend: What are you writing?
Me: Not sure, some essays. Not really essays. Not essays at all. Some things.
This book of things (letters, reports, daydreams, microfiction, medical encounters, history) lacks a single form, either in argument or arrangement, instead it spirals. Ideas and images appear without fanfare, only to reappear and reappear (and reappear) as echoes or trip lines in the dark. It is a document of Harvey roving for answers and relief. Yet as the cause and cure of her insomnia remain evasive, the underpinning shape of the memoir becomes one of uncertainty: ‘The mind in fright starts turning in on itself, finding ways to frighten itself so that it can justify being scared.’
Without any answers, the only escape is to dissociate from herself. In the style and tone of a medical report, Harvey recounts her incremental cleaving from sleep: ‘The patient reports that her problems with sleep began a few months after she moved house to live on a main road, when she was often woken early by traffic.’
This book lacks a single form, either in argument or arrangement, instead it spirals… It is a document of Harvey roving for answers and relief.
Harvey catalogues the list of remedies ‘the patient’ has already employed: ‘She reports learning French, making mosaics, playing solitaire, doing jigsaws, counting her breaths, listening to episodes of In Our Time, Tate podcasts, The Allusionist, an audio edition of Remembrance of Things Past, Radio 4’s Soul Music…’ Nothing gives her respite.
At first Harvey recognises the rage surging through her body: The provisional diagnosis is ‘possible chronic Post Brexit Insomnia (PBI)’. It is only after several weeks of insomnia, when at a silence retreat, she detects ‘the existence of persistent panic’. A feeling that she realises isn’t only attributed to geopolitics, but has a more complex, more personal and persistent origin. A fear of life itself.
This shock of life comes when her cousin dies so unexpectedly it is as if he were snatched away: ‘I can’t breathe, for the grief I feel. My cousin’s death has invited all deaths. I can’t breathe with this future grief.’
After Googling what happens to bodies after death and burial, Harvey writes a letter to her deceased cousin. Following a brief salutation (‘Dear Cousin Paul’) she assures him: ‘I write without flippancy.’ She describes the process of decay that his body is now experiencing: ‘Your face and its billion moments of life will collapse and rot, and within a few weeks the corpse will be hard to recognise as you.’
The poetic and epic descriptions of bacteria feeding on flesh (‘a blooming, a slow-motion explosion’) are just the beginning of Harvey’s traversing between reality and fantasy. Throughout the memoir, sentences unfurl across several lines, teetering close to the point of unravelling. They are abruptly abutted by cool, clipped slices of logic—or at least attempts at it. Harvey feels her mind veer as if in a perpetual state of vertigo.
Harvey recounts a visit to her GP. Her doctor can offer no further clinical interventions for insomnia. Harvey has already tried all known cures—pharmacological, psychological and spiritual—to no avail. The doctor closes their unsatisfying exchange with a final prescription:
No catastrophising, she says softly.
No catastrophising, I say.
For the past few weeks I have been instructed to catastrophise about COVID-19. I work in a regional hospital. Each day we have meetings planning for unknown unknowns. We share terrible and bleak thoughts. We prepare for the worst.
For the past few weeks my eyelids have become tender and red. I have stopped touching my face during the day. I can only imagine what I have been doing at night.
My troubles with sleep are not new. From bouts of sleep paralysis to sleep walking, my body rarely sinks into the deepest realm of rest. Instead, I skim the surface of consciousness. Night after night.
My body rarely sinks into the deepest realm of rest. Instead, I skim the surface of consciousness. Night after night.
Reading A Shapeless Unease, a book about a dire lack of sleep, prompted a series of slack-jawed yawns to escape from my mouth. I welcomed them, each and every one. There is nothing dull, or even stupefying, about A Shapeless Unease—Harvey is sharp, shrewd and unrelenting in self-inquiry. My sister once told me that dogs will only yawn if they feel safe and at ease. So, as I sat in the soft autumn sun, book in hand, my body lowered its guard for the first time in weeks.
When a therapist asks Harvey if she feels that her insomnia is affecting her mental health, Harvey replies: ‘I’m desperate, I want to know that it’s going to end. I want to be there for my family. I could cope with it if I knew it would end, if somebody could reassure me.’
Her therapist simply says: ‘I’m not going to reassure you.’
I am reassured by my deep chested response to Harvey’s writing. For a book about panic, grief and rage as well as writing, living and dying, it is a deeply comforting and companionable read. Even more so, when all I can think about is future grief.
The Shapeless Unease is available now at your local independent bookseller.
An earlier version of this piece was a runner up in the 2020 KYD New Critic Award.