The Shapeless Unease

by Samantha Harvey (2020) The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping cover
The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping, Samantha Harvey (2020)

A novel of disorienting time dilation where days and nights coalesce into a maddening blur.

Sleep is the great frontier of the unknown. It is as mysterious as the deepest oceans and the furthest reaches of outer space. We marvel at the quantified world of scientific achievement around us and yet we know almost nothing about how we spend roughly ⅓ of our lives. And when sleep is unavailable, our tidy world quickly falls apart. This is the space explored by Samantha Harvey in The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping.

Harvey presents a tactile experience of insomnia. Her experience is unrelenting and unforgiving. The book reflects the lived trauma; it is likewise unrelenting and unforgiving.

What can you expect from an author who writes “The heart is a tough lump of meat, flooded with fear”?page 4

The experience of reading The Shapeless Unease has prompted reviewers to reach for trigger warnings and suggest a more researched (and gentler) rendition of sleeplessness. This criticism is really an endorsement. And here’s another endorsement: I don’t recommend this book to my friends with sleeping issues. It is riddled with anxiety and dead ends.

But the book is fundamentally alive. One of the most alive books I have read in a while. It embodies our senseless desire to overcome, even if we do not succeed. It’s not just a black hole like Samuel Delany’s Hogg.

Harvey is a writer “shocked by the fraudulence of words” because “every word claims an authority and every word craves to be believed.”page 23

But later she opines that words were her destiny; it was her destiny to realize herself as a wordsmith rather than endeavor into 147

Threaded through the middle of this dichotomy are the winding roads of self-doubt that consume the insomniac, mixed with a potent sense of loss - through the death of her cousin - and a deep sense of feeling lost.

Ultimately, Harvey is troubled by the irresolvable paradoxes of life. And we get to feel her rotating through thoughts deep at night like a person obsessively spinning a Rubik’s Cube. There are no answers. So she rummages through Buddhist teachings hoping for relief but they get stuck on the small, unhelpful moments of the present rather than a grand acceptance of the paradox of suffering.

Short of enlightenment, there are no solutions; there are only mitigations until we all succumb to the same fate. The Shapeless Unease is a tacit reflection of this reality. But in the depiction of her struggle, Harvey profoundly captures the essence of being.