Imprisoned by Insomnia: Sleepless by Marie Darrieussecq

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“The world is divided into those who can sleep and those who can’t,” opens the first chapter in Marie Darrieussecq’s visceral and immersive Sleepless: A Memoir of Insomnia, (Semiotext(e)). The renowned French writer has never shied away from the challenges of language to accommodate experience; her novels, often narrated by married women, uses Kafkaesque premises (a husband’s metamorphoses into a pig; another husband’s erasure from existence) to open an exploration into the surreal. Memoir is less common territory for Darrieussecq, but with insomnia, she has found a real-world subject appropriate for her ongoing concerns about making sense of the absurd. 

In rooting out its cause, Darrieussecq takes us on an odyssey through the recesses of her insomnia and of insomnia itself. In seven uniquely themed sections—“The Deep Sleep in My Skull,” “Other Bodies,” etc.—along with a prologue and a short interlude midway through, the book treks through lucid and hallucinatory terrain and is anything but linear. The prologue provides a guide to reading, establishing the book’s tone:

I lost sleep. I retraced my steps but sleep wasn’t following me. It had broken free and I was wandering through the night without it…What wild beast has devoured my sleep? I’m hunting it down in the forest. I’ve got leads. The killer left clues…I had to lay my insomnia to rest. Rake over it one last time and then poof, perhaps I’d be able to sleep. This book is the result of twenty years of panic, and of journeys through books and through my nights. 

Though it is presented as a memoir, Sleepless reads more like a collage of texts and quotes: along with the memories and anecdotes of Darrieussecq’s own insomnia, she includes a historical and psychological account of the disorder, its use as a vessel of torture and creative inspiration, and its impact on the many writers, artists, thinkers, leaders and other luminaries who have also suffered from it. Marguerite Duras sees it as “a path toward a higher intelligence”; others, such as Kafka, a shortcut to madness for whom the only way out is a permanent sleep. “Agonies in bed towards morning,” she notes of a diary entry from Kafka (“the patron saint of insomnia”). “Saw only solution in jumping out of the window.” 

One of the more revealing aspects of the book is how much documentation there is of insomnia by those who have suffered from it, what Darrieussecq calls “four-in-the-morning literature.” But this genre is hardly relegated to the written word.  Along with these voices, Darrieussecq weaves in an array of photos, images, and even a song tied to sleeplessness. It begins to feel a bit morbid when it’s made clear that this body of work was made by people at times when they would otherwise be sleeping. Even as a fellow insomniac, this kind of literature eventually vexes Darrieussecq who writes that she has since stopped collecting it. 

Her own insomnia is exacerbated by her habit of mental writing, the continuation of composing in one’s head after pausing from the physical act. Not without irony, this included working on Sleepless. She recounts how, laying in bed, she would think of her life “looking for the best summary possible” and “writing, without writing.” One of the various methods she employed to quell her sleeplessness included using a Morphée Box, which contains a series of non-digital, guided meditations. During this, “sentences are forming in my head (despite the voice telling me to concentrate, in that moment, on my left toe), the feeling of living an experience for the book I’m writing prevents me from sleeping, I’m already mentally writing this paragraph.”

Sleepless is an exhaustive account of its subject, and Darrieussecq leaves no proverbial stone unturned in her search for an elusive answer or deeper significance of the phenomenon of sleep disturbances. Topics that seem tangentially related, such as giving birth prematurely (the result of her malformed uterus), urban nightlife, and an expedition to the Congo to see gorillas for a study on animal sleep habits, give the book the organization of a dream’s logic. While her sociological and anthropological studies are engrossing in their own right, it is the creative nuance of Darrieussecq’s prose, its fragmentary structure, and the lucid, lyrical translation by her longtime translator Penny Hueston, that successfully weaves them together.  

Only once does Darrieussecq fully break from this structure. In the aforementioned “Interlude,” written in a kind of hypnogogic state, Darrieusecq writes of boarding and sitting in an airplane, at first agitated and impatient, detailing the disorganization of the flight attendants and staff. Yet, after the plane takes off, and she has a couple of flutes of complimentary champagne, she writes:

I fall asleep off the ground
I fall asleep in the artificial gravity of aircraft cabins
I fall asleep perched up high in the atmosphere
I fall asleep as I leave the planet
I fall asleep beyond the sound barrier
that’s what I need in order to fall asleep
nothing more is up to me
the pilot will deal with everything

While the passage departs stylistically from the rest of the book’s grounded prose to take lyrical flight, as poetry, it soars. Like counting sheep, this insomniac’s mantra feels less like something Darrieusecq intended for an audience and something more intimate she might actually recite to induce slumber, a false dreamstate she constructs in order to enter an unconscious one.

As the book becomes more personal, Darrieussecq writes of her attempt to “fix her sleep” beyond a change of habits and use of supplements. She agrees to undergo polysomnography, a medical study requiring her to wear sensors and a wiry full-headed mask at night, even including photos of herself wearing this equipment. She writes of receiving the results: 

I received the interpretation of the curves on my sleep graph, no sleep apnea, no oxygen desaturation; but I was waking up twenty times an hour. It’s normal to wake up two or three times an hour: a good sleep smooths the crests in the curve that the sleeper isn’t aware of. But twenty times—these microawakenings were keeping me awake. “Hypervigilance” was the verdict.  In other words, a wakefulness disorder. And what is a wakefulness disorder if not a life disorder?

Among the prescriptions? No more reading or writing before bed. A similar solution, Darrieusecq observes, was once advised by a psychiatrist to Virginia Woolf: “Do not write.”

The book closes where it first started, with Darrieussecq returning to writers and their thoughts, not on sleeplessness, but on the unknown, the future. “The future is dark,” she notes Woolf describing this vast space, “which is the best thing the future can be.” It is through the tranquility of the dark, with no images, no sound, nothing to consider but the dark itself, that one is able to fall asleep. 



Matti Ben-Lev earned his BA from Towson University, where he studied creative writing and was a poetry editor on Grub Street, Towson’s literary magazine. Ben-Lev has written for 34thParallel and lives in Baltimore, where he has worked as a behavioral therapist for kids on the autism spectrum. His Twitter handle is @MBenlev. More from this author →