‘The Great Awake’ by Julia Armfield

In the cities, sleep has somehow mutated from a habit into an entity. We don’t know why, but it is no longer an activity. Instead it has become, for each individual, another individual, sharing their life, sharing their rooms, not entirely real, not entirely a haunting. Everyone has a Sleep. They’re “always tall and slender”. They don’t do much, though they’re prone to strangely inept gestures, some compulsive behaviour, some of it bad. Nobody can sleep since their Sleep got a life of its own, but they try to continue as normal and the world doesn’t seem to be changing much as a result. All of this is told from a thoughtful distance, as if only very calm observation can separate the problem from hysteria and allow it to be stated, let alone understood. “People in my building,” the narrator records, “stopped sleeping at a rate of about one a night.” You can’t quite tell if her equanimity reflects a style of thought or simple dreaminess, the result of the deprivation now forced on everyone. Or perhaps not everyone. The narrator’s friend Leonie still sleeps, and it is making her desperate. No one but Leonie wants their Sleep; no one but Leonie wants to be insomniac. She feels left out. “The Great Awake” won The White Review Short Story Prize in 2018, so everyone probably knows about it already.

First published in The White Review, 2018. Collected in Salt Slow, Picador, May 2019

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