‘ZZ’s Sleep-Away Camp For Disordered Dreamers’ by Karen Russell

ZZ’s Sleep-Away Camp For Disordered Dreamers by Karen Russell, 2006

The magic trick:

Insanely creative world building

I feel like the material in this story should be an award-winning, generation-inspiring YA novel. The concept here is so thorough and so imaginative and just so damn good.

And yet as a story? It’s kind of a mess.

The characters never quite take shape. Their relationships never progress to a place where you understand their motivations, let alone care. The plot works better as a twisted joke – counting dead sheep at a camp for kids with sleep dysfunctions – than it does as an actual narrative. And generally speaking, everything moves way too fast for the reader to properly enjoy. There are really funny lines in here, but we can’t linger on the pause, because the next paragraph has already moved on to a massive explanation of how one the camp’s dream sessions works. Or something. There’s a novel’s worth of ideas here. Maybe even an entire YA series.

So even as the story crashes and burns, you marvel at the creativity here. There are so many ideas – and they’re really cool ides, too – that they spill over the borders inherent to the short story format. There’s too much happening at once. But the too much that is happening is still amazing to take in. And that’s quite a trick on Russell’s part. 

The selection:

At ZZ’s, our nights echo with weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Popularity is determined according to an unspoken algorithm that averages the length and volume of your sleep- yodeled error. Even at a place like Zorba’s, there’s still a clearly delineated social hierarchy:
Cabin 2: Sleep Apneacs
Cabin 3: Somnambulists
Cabin 6: Somniloquists
Cabin 8: Headbangers
Cabin 11: Night Eaters
Cabin 7: Gnashers
Cabin 13: Night Terrors
Cabin 9: Insomniacs
Cabin 1: Narcoleptics
Cabin 10: Incubuses
Cabin 5: Incontinents
And then there’s us. Cabin 4: Other. The ones whose parents checked the box marked “Other.” Our illnesses do not matchc any diagnostic criteria. That means we’re considered anomalies by Gnasher dudes who have ground their pearly whites down to nubbins, by Incubus girls who think that demon jockeys are riding them in their sleep.


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