At the National Patience Sleep Conference, a woman walks up to Patricia Morrisroe, author of Wide Awake, and says, "Hi, my name is Ann. I have narcolepsy, sleep apnea and rheumatoid arthritis. … So, what's your sleep issue?"
"I've got insomnia," says our protagonist.
Disappointed, the questioner wanders away.
This neatly exemplifies the culture of medical one-upmanship we live in, and which the pharmaceutical industry equally promotes and profits from, as Morrisroe, a magazine writer and author of Mapplethorpe: A Biography, shows in her extensively researched book. As well as a memoir of her own insomnia, the book is a tour of the $32-billion industry that has sprung up around our quest to bag the perfect Zs: not just the pills and pathologies, but the fetishization of mattresses, the various therapies and analyses available to poor sleepers.
Morrisroe has livened up what could have been a wearisomely fact-heavy read by venturing into the field and embracing the spirit of adventure. She visits a company in the Empire State Building that rents "nap pods"; goes to a doctor who tells her that small jaws cause insomnia and recommends she get braces; tries Russian "brain-music therapy," which involves synchronizing music to brain-wave patterns; visits a Swedish ice hotel and talks to the Sami, Sweden's indigenous people, about how they cope with barely there summer nights and monstrous winter ones; and shops for the ultimate country home, which promises sleep cocooned from traffic and neighbours.
As with Fast-Food Nation, the book neatly points up the way technology has altered our lives and our health. But far from being earnest, Morrisroe's romp through the sleep industry is often very funny and full of fascinating examples of the collateral damage caused by our collective sleep deficit, from Spain's male-impotence crisis to the U.S. obesity epidemic or the fact that energy drinks are now being marketed to kids from 4 to 11.
The reader's sympathy is occasionally strained by Morrisroe's personal plaint, particularly when she pulls a bid on one country home because the woman at the neighbouring house is expecting. The torment of insomnia is real enough; anyone who has suffered from it can attest to the way it grinds down a person's defences. But you have to wonder if she has ever heard about the concept of inner peace. I mean, she has to have. She lives in Manhattan, where a notoriously overstimulated population thrives on power yoga and power naps, and where, eventually, she enrolls in a meditation class, much to this reader's relief.
At which point the book becomes, in that most American of traditions, a spiritual quest. Insomnia is not a purely physiological condition, and Morrisroe must necessarily deconstruct her own psyche at a certain point. She is a somewhat reluctant and modest navel-gazer, so the exercise feels more like puzzle-solving than an indulgence. Her dream analysis is Freudianly astute, imaginatively expansive, while tales of her upbringing are almost implausibly literary; she is a natural memoirist.
An encounter with her "inner voice" toward the end harks back to that other great American spiritual quest, Eat, Pray, Love, but while readers apparently felt incredibly invested in Elizabeth Gilbert - her struggle was their struggle - I'm not sure the same will be felt of Morrisroe, who is not as tactically charming.
Still, you can't fault Morrisroe for her honesty. Part of what makes the book fun is her frank discomfort with things like dream-circle confessions that end in tears - everybody's except hers. She's such a New Yorker that even her eventual softening can't put a dent in her sardonicism.
The moral of the story, of course, is that money can't buy sleep. But it can buy you a pretty nice country home.
Lisan Jutras is an erstwhile insomnia sufferer. Sociable, her column on social media, appears in the Life section on Mondays.