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'The Shapeless Unease': Eye-opening memoir about not sleeping for a year

"The Shapeless Unease" by Samantha Harvey is a

"The Shapeless Unease" by Samantha Harvey is a memoir dealing with a year in her life when she couldn't sleep. Credit: Getty Images/NIKOLA MILJKOVIC

THE SHAPELESS UNEASE by Samantha Harvey (Grove Press, 192 pp., $24)

For English writer Samantha Harvey, 2016 had been a rough year. Her unease began with the sudden death of her young cousin and it was compounded by the national travesty that was Brexit. “It isn’t Britain leaving the EU, it’s the UK. Why isn’t it called UKexit?” writes Harvey. “Never trust something that’s inaccurately labeled.”

“The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping,” Harvey’s memoir in which she relives and dissects the sleepless year in question, is so exquisitely written it’s a challenge to review, as there is an impulse to quote nearly every precise, stylized line. Her chronicle of morality, mortality and memory is adept at capturing the ineffable reservations with — and appreciation for — being alive. “There’s a force at work that doesn’t wish for my well-being,” writes Harvey. “It feels personal.”

Harvey’s trenchant wit informs her indefatigable search for understanding. She uses humor as a cudgel to smash the obstacles that seek to obfuscate the causes of her distress. This is more than a meditation on anxiety and depression; Harvey whittles her own restive, revelatory mind. She is the subject of her own inquiries. “Case Study of Possible Chronic Post Brexit Insomnia (PBI); Patient, female, 43, has always slept well,” she begins, dispatching with mordant rigor such clinical terms as “Over-reactive Disorder (OD),” “Pointless Mortality Projection Syndrome (PMPS)” and “Fatal Familial Insomnia.”

 Her nearly dreamlike ruminations — no doubt, brought on by the trauma of unabated wakefulness — include corporeal decomposition, English politics, family, childhood memories, language, Noam Chomsky, encounters with incredulous doctors, menopause, dreams, poetry, fiction and the grammar of the Pirahã people of the Brazilian Amazon. Harvey’s wily, ethereal sensations are expressed in a thorough stream of consciousness. Writing "is the subconscious, and it draws on the conscious.”    

To illustrate her points, Harvey introduces metaphors, anecdotes, passages from stories, fantasies, experiences relayed by friends, philosophies and scientific studies. She plays with these tools, massaging them into uncommon shapes which she uses to steamroll over cliches and lazy solutions. She is an advocate for those who suffer and especially for those whose suffering is made worse by the promise of a quick fix or a callous dismissal. “The more [my doctor] listens to me the more I tell or show her that I’m suffering. The more I tell or show her I’m suffering, the more she thinks I’m neurotic and self-obsessed.” Her coping strategies occasionally conquer the damaging effects of insomnia. Harvey, primarily a fiction writer with five novels and graduate degrees in philosophy and creative writing, calls on her fecund imagination to guide her out of the unsleeping abyss. She is both most touching and most pointed when she writes about “animal grace” and “weird, awkward comforts.”

Sometimes the strategies intersect. Such is the case when she invents a story rooted in multiple clauses as a thought exercise to tame her wild brain. In the story, a man robs a cash machine, but loses his wedding ring in the process, and must go back to the scene of the crime to retrieve it, as his “terrifying” wife with “many material needs” will kill him for losing it. This story recurs throughout and develops, spinning into unexpected places before ultimately revealing itself as perhaps Harvey’s most complete metaphor for her condition, not just a diversionary mechanism for survival. “A life has enough failed plans — some of them great ones — to know that luck has the final say,” she writes about her characters. She includes in this fiction items from her childhood — her mother’s silver candelabra and the song, “The Windmills of My Mind.” Harvey investigates: “I know that when I loan a character I made up a piece of my own autobiography I am trying to understand that piece of autobiography.”    

Before she announces her “cure for insomnia,” Harvey admits to an anger that knows no limits. “I’m angry about the heedless repetition of historical mistakes. I’m angry that the week we gained Donald Trump as a world leader we lost Leonard Cohen … I’m angry at the great national con that is Brexit. The rip-off of our values.”

As she closes her tormenting account, Harvey returns to an image she conjures throughout, that of a swimmer, not working against the current, but traveling with it, surrendering to the tide, knowing that the struggle will eventually pass as all things do.

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