August 2004

Lee Bob Black


The Coma by Alex Garland

Carl knows a few crucial things about himself -- name, gender -- but most of his past is blank. Except for vague images of parents, Carl has practically no backstory. Does he have brain damage? Maybe. Amnesia? He can’t tell for sure. Is he comatose? He recalls the train, the hooligans hassling a female passenger, paying for his accidental heroism by being beating to a pulp, the ambulance ride, a ventilator, and something about a suitcase. But after he rises from the coma and is released from hospital, Carl loses all sense of certainty. Is he still comatose? Or is he dreaming of being comatose?

Carl is not an unreliable narrator -- he does not lie to the reader or withhold information. Instead, Carl’s pickle is that he’s aware that the boundaries between dream and waking worlds have crumbled, as when he realizes the impossibility of touching his face when in a coma, and how this "feels" as if his fingers pass backwards through his skull. But gradually he distinguishes that he can do something about his predicament. He must wake. When this becomes his starting point -- that everything might be a daydream, but he’s not going to let that stop him -- the book comes into its own, a Red Bull-ride, a jolt of simulated (not virtual) reality. More street speed than powerful herbal stimulant, The Coma is a heightened existential experience.

In a long line of books and movies that explore the brain-in-a-vat thought experiment and the mind-body problem of Cartesian philosophy, Alex Garland’s third novel initially covers familiar ground: Should memory be trusted? What is "real" reality? Is everyone else an illusion? If so, are my friends me? And, ultimately, how then can I prove my existence? However, unlike the grand scale of The Matrix (where brains and bodies of the human race are literally preserved in vats), The Coma is more reminiscent of Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun, for Garland likewise imprisons the protagonist in a solipsistic dreamscape where only he can save himself.

The Coma’s protagonist concludes that dreaming and waking are indistinguishable, and that while his body might be an illusion, his thoughts exist independently. And, like Descartes, since Carl’s thoughts exist, he concludes that he therefore exists. In time, however, Carl loses that too. What follows is Carl simultaneously ‘living’ through a months-long near-death experience and an out-of-body-experience, vacillating between knowing and forgetting that he’s a comatose patient.

Carl tries to escape the consciousness of his problems by transferring his qualities onto those who care about him. His girlfriend represents his emotional states. A male nurse exists as if to remind Carl of his parents. When Carl criticizes a TV newsreader for seeming to "lose the meaning of the words he was reading from the autocue -- failing to anticipate the end of one sentence, or the beginning of another," it’s really Carl’s so-called life that has lost its meaning; it’s just that he’s unaware of displacing this onto someone else, shifting responsibility. Ditto when Carl hears a taxi-driver say, “My wife thought I was mad... But I wasn’t mad.”

Initially, some of Garland’s motifs and literary devices seemed too elaborate and obscure; yet on a second read they disentangle and shine. This speaks favorably of a writer who graduated from Manchester University with a degree in History of Art, and who planned, before turning to fiction, to become a cartoonist -- for a book that improves the second time around is rare indeed.

Garland’s gift for idiosyncratic phrases that zing, continues to entertain. In The Beach it was backpacker protocol, flipping mental coins, and the FNG (Fucking New Guy). The Tesseract brought us nicotine clarity. Some gems from The Coma include psychological fallout and black belts in yoga.
Visually and rhythmically, The Coma is a departure for Garland. First and most obviously, nearly one-quarter of the book consists of woodblock print illustrations that tantalize the narrative in the same way that aromas from your favorite kitchen perk up your expectations. Nicholas Garland, political cartoonist for the Guardian (UK) and the author’s father, created the strong black and white woodprints. About this collaboration, the author wrote, "I suggested the idea to him and he agreed there was potential. I warned him that he hadn’t seen me in a work context before, and he would learn that I was both a fascist and a psychopath. He explained, I already know that."

Secondly and subtly -- and perhaps informed by the author’s passion for comic books -- The Coma is sparser and choppier. Gone are the exotic locations of The Beach, which was a foray into madness via dystopia that was praised as a cult novel about Gen X disillusionment. Gone are the intricate sub-plots weaving in on themselves that were found in The Tesseract, a story of personal tragedies and making sense out of nonsense, of homeless children and a dysfunctional family being drawn into the wake of gangsters chasing a British seaman through Manila. With one illustration per chapter of The Coma, the average chapter length is less than four pages. Also, the generally shorter paragraphs open up a completely different reading experience than Garland’s denser, earlier works.

In The Coma, Garland regularly disregards the quintessential "show, don’t tell" rule: that anything necessary to the action’s development should be shown dramatically, not stated or implied. Also, at times the plot plods along -- though this does gel with the protagonist’s decision not to rush his recovery (except for hurrying back to the hospital before severe irreversible brain damage occurs).

Get hold of a copy of The Coma if you’re up for reading about the ingenious ways Carl tries to rouse himself from his coma. Without spoiling it for you, first he decides he needs to "infiltrate a catalyst into the coma patient’s mind." Next, though, he figures that waking from dreams is tantamount to dying. In his words, "You wake, you die." This premise allows The Coma to stand apart from others in its genre, for it acknowledges that to live is to die.

The Coma by Alex Garland
Riverhead Books
ISBN: 1573222739
200 Pages