The lyric essay is having a moment, as seen in writing from Sarah Manguso, Claire-Louise Bennett and Maggie Nelson. A form of genre-bending nonfiction, the lyric essay combines conventional essay-writing with memoir, poetic prose and eclectic titbits of research. It also relies on association rather than narrative in its compositional method. That approach seems particularly appropriate in Marina Benjamin’s extraordinary Insomnia, in which the form of the book is figured as a symptom of the insomniac, whose wandering night-time consciousness “free-associates and innovates ... noodles, trips, and blusters ... respecting no boundaries”.
It’s a book about insomnia’s existential and somatic qualities; its scene (the bedroom); its philosophical and cultural resonances; its historical and sociological dimensions. Descriptions of the existential and somatic qualities of insomnia often resemble poetry: “In sleeplessness I have come to understand that there is a taxonomy of darkness to uncover, and with it, a nocturnal literacy we can acquire.” Memoir is present in the narrator’s reflections on her bed partner, who does not suffer from a sleep disorder and who is thus comically called Zzz. Meanwhile, research informs the book’s reflections on how industrialism has affected our “natural” sleep patterns, including through the production of stimulants such as tobacco, coffee and sugar, which are described as “generators of mass insomnia”. There are also diverse cultural references: Gilgamesh, Robinson Crusoe, the poetry of Rumi, “The Princess and the Pea”.
The strength of the associative method is in the way in which unexpected connections reveal unexpected resonances, ironies or insights. For example, the book connects the plantation slavery of colonial times and contemporary habits of overworking sustained by stimulants grown on those plantations. Elsewhere the author memorably compares sleep and love as experiences that similarly require trust, and insomnia and love as experiences that both reveal “the essential otherness of the beloved”. Another insightful connection is made between the child’s natural hostility to the “blank negation” of sleep and Sleeping Beauty’s “cursed sleep”.
Insomnia is a striking reminder of how strange we remain to ourselves. We spend a third of our lives in sleep, but our relationship with that condition is, as Benjamin describes it, “perverse” and “fundamentally embattled”. Read this at night at your own peril. KN
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 8, 2018 as "Marina Benjamin, Insomnia ". Subscribe here.