My sole response to reaching the end of Samantha Harvey’s The Shapeless Unease was gratitude, not to Harvey, but to reaching the end and not giving up. It was a long, difficult slog, but I made it, sheer stubbornness propelling me forward to its vague conclusion. It’s not a terrible book, not by litfic, and not memfic, standards: it has the requisite lyrical prose, occasional, brilliant insight, only to lapse into lyrical existential-babble that hopes to dissolve the self, or digressive, tangential passages, never coming together with what came before, or what comes after.
Initially, I was drawn to the topic, but driven away by the style. As someone who has experienced bouts of insomnia, one in particular, I’d say, debilitating, and is an obsessive lover of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the greatest account of insomnias ever written, I wanted to read Harvey’s memoir. It started out great: Harvey, a regular sleeper pre-year-of-not-sleeping, recounts the incident at the heart of her not-sleeping: her cousin’s death. My understanding, and who knows, given the impenetrable style, I may be wrong, is that Harvey’s insomnia is linked to an existential dread of death, triggered by her cousin’s loss: “my cousin’s death has invited all deaths”.
Her analysis of her problem was insightful and compelling. Her initial scene-setting an echo of every insomniac’s experience: “Into bed and lie down. Head goes on pillow. And with the light out, here they come, all of them, the holy and the horrifying; here they are.” Yes, “for in that sleep of death, what dreams may come”. In this pandemic year, goodness knows, no one sleeps well. At first I did, well and deep, released from the worries of work, which is the only thing that keeps me awake; when the world “opened up” again, ugh, the early morning wake-up, with the whirring mind, started up again. But Harvey’s sleeplessness cannot bear comparison: she didn’t sleep for days, weeks, months. And her initial descriptions of it are compelling and fascinating. But not too long after the first pages, it began: “the desire for sleep is also the denial of it”. The thing that sent me away from contemporary writing to genre fiction and nonfiction (which this is and isn’t, more of that later): the statement that isn’t a statement except insofar as it states the obvious. But I stuck it through to the end, because it’s a short book, “novella” length, and skimmed the parts where Harvey tells a fictional account of a man who robs ATMs because he loves his wife and wants to offer her money. I never figured out what this had to do with her horrific insomnia. And it is horrific and I feel terrible for her and I hope she can sleep like a baby for years and years, but I’m glad not to be in her experience, head, and prose anymore.
Samantha Harvey’s The Shapeless Unease is published by Grove. It was released in May and you may find it at your preferred vendors. I received an e-galley from Grove, via Netgalley.