Friday, 6 February 2015

The Coma by Alex Garland Review

I remember reading The Coma when it first came out some 10 years-ish ago, flying through it in a day and dismissing it as “eh, dream story, got it”. I’m glad I came back and re-read it and thought about it more afterwards as there’s a lot more to it than that (and understanding what I read, rather than chalking it up as another book down, is the whole point of why I write reviews anyway). 

Carl is in the office making notes on papers late into the night. His secretary calls to remind him that the last train leaves in 25 minutes so he leaves. On the underground he sees a young woman being hassled by some yoofs. He intervenes and they stomp on his head. Carl is rushed to hospital in a coma. The novella begins with Carl trying to figure out what’s happened and then how he can awaken and return to his life. 

Alex Garland wonderfully describes the dream state Carl finds himself in, really bringing that aspect alive for the reader. Carl goes from scene to scene without knowing how he got from one place to another, time seems to speed up, time goes backwards as he revisits favourite memories - it’s a great trip and exactly follows dream logic. 

The book, though some 200 pages or so in length, is actually much shorter – a mirage in itself. Take all of the text and cut out the white space, the blank pages, the woodcut drawings, and it’s more like a 60ish page short story. But actually the way the book is laid out with everything spaced out like it is, is all part of the story. 

The reader realises, at the same time as Carl, that his memories are extremely limited and he’s suffering from amnesia. The blank pages represent the blanks in his memory and the short chapters - some are just a paragraph - could be a way of measuring time with each chapter perhaps representing a day or an episode that he’s in a coma and conscious but not awake. The longer chapters mean he’s conscious for longer, etc. 

Garland’s father, Nicholas, also supplies black and white woodcut drawings which heightens the moody, haunting nature of the story. They’re a fantastic addition to the book and show that Garland was thinking more visually in his writing - an indication of his career path where he would give up prose novels (The Coma was his last book) and focus on screenwriting. More recently he’s made the transition to directing with his first film, Ex Machina, being released a couple weeks ago. 

But the woodcuts also serve as visual clues to the story. Later on, Carl buys a chotchkie of a strange little demon/god figure and it’s the same one as one of the three that we see breaking up the story at certain intervals/parts. I think the chotchkies are there as another indicator to mark time and indicate how many cycles Carl has gone through these memories. The first section of the book, we see one chotchkie; the second, there are two; the third there are three - Carl has lived through this book we’re reading three times. The final time we see the three chotchkies lined up, they’re set against a black background. Something’s changed. Has Carl woken up - or has he died? 

There’s also other ways to interpret The Coma: it might be an exercise in exploring narrative fiction from the perspective of the character. Carl is a character in a novel, so this story might be about him slowly realising this. All he knows are the facts that the author has supplied him with that we see in the opening passage of the book: he works in an office with papers, he has a secretary, he was brutally assaulted, and he’s in a coma. When he thinks about other aspects of his life, he draws a blank. If that could happen to Carl, could it happen to us – are we characters in a story we’re not aware of?

It’s interesting how Garland looks at language as well - Carl has been in a coma for so long that he begins to forget how to use and the meaning of language. He throws out unconnected words and then muses on why those don’t make sense but others do, like the ones he uses to express himself. Or do they? Towards the end, the gibberish begins to make sense to him. Does that mean he’s freeing himself from the bonds of the author? Does that mean he’s deteriorating - that he’s actually dying and his brain is giving up? 

I can understand some readers’ frustration at the way this novel meanders but if you’ve read Garland’s most famous work, The Beach, you’ll know his theme of aimless wandering is a favourite of his. The Coma is an extension of that theme, delving further into our identities and our search for meaning. 

I think the search for answers and aimlessness is especially pertinent to Garland who was making the transition from feted young novelist to high profile screenwriter at this time. The Coma is that transition in a book from prose to screenwriting, as well as the answer that he was done with novels and ready to move on to something new. 

But there is no real answer to The Coma. The ending is that most polarising of finales: open-ended. In a way, that’s the best choice to end it - to give the illusion of finality while leaving poor Carl in his spiral of never-ending searching. In that interpretation, this is a very true representation of being in a coma - the same thing going on and on forever until you either wake up or die. Though really a narrative of aimlessness could never have a solid conclusion due to its nature. 

In the end, most people can read The Coma quickly as it’s well written, it’s short, and you’re going to want to see where it’s all going; but don’t. Reading a book is not a race. I’m not saying this is a masterpiece - the writing is a bit too spare and not terribly evocative at times - though it is a book that has more substance here you can easily gloss over if you speed read your way through it. 

The Coma is a haunting story on the nature of reality and the search for identity. It could also be read as many other things like the purpose of memories in informing our reality, the aim of narrative in our lives and our art, and, more simply, a fine, unusual entertainment for fiction lovers everywhere. Definitely well worth a read.

The Coma

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