Alex Garland The Coma Reviewed by Rick Kleffel

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The Coma

Alex Garland

Faber & Faber

UK Hardcover First

ISBN 0-571-22308-7

Publication Date: 07-01-2004

168 Pages; £16.99



The Coma

Alex Garland

Riverhead Books

US Hardcover First

ISBN 1-573-22273-9

Publication Date: 07-01-2004

144 pages; $19.95


Date Reviewed: 06-17-04

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2004




General Fiction, Horror

[Readers may be interested in first seeing a preview of the book with large scans of the woodcuts.]

The most difficult effect for a writer to achieve is simplicity. The clarity, the transparency that results from simplicity pulls readers relentlessly into a narrative, and enables the writer to get direct access to the reader's emotions. Alex Garland manages to get out of his own way and stay out of his own way in the clever and chilling short novel 'The Coma'. Aided by 40 woodcut illustrations done by his father, Garland takes on an idea that's been done a million times by many a famous writer. Is the character awake or asleep, alive or dead, seeing or dreaming? It's a dangerous business to visit ground that's as heavily trafficked as this. Garland treads lightly, pays attention to the characters and gets the details blurrily right. His prose is so readable and his story so nicely compacted that readers will want to -- and be able to -- read it in one sitting. And that's good because once they've finished, they'll want to read it again -- and be both willing and able to.

The plot is nearly as thin as the novel. Carl works late at the office, and finds himself alone on the tube with a woman -- until they're both joined by a group of thugs. When the hoodlums menace the woman, Carl steps in and gets stepped on. The last thing he remembers before passing out is getting pummeled. Then -- the hospital bed. Or is it?

Chapters in 'The Coma' are one or two pages, and each chapter is accompanied by one of Garland senior's woodcuts. The illustrations are creepy and effective, bolstering the mood of the prose. As it becomes clear that Carl has not wakened but is still in a coma, Garland has his character confront this situation head-on. There's no maybe about it, Carl knows he is in a coma and knows that he must wake up. Trapped in a world of his own creation, the fear begins to seep from the pitch-black pictures into the character -- and thence into the reader.

By keeping matters simple, Garland manages to evoke a number of very effective chills. He swiftly bangs the lid shut on Carl's mental jail and the reader can hear the ringing bars. What Garland is after here -- and actually manages to get -- is the universal sense of mental claustrophobia. Ultimately, we're all stuck with and in ourselves. Garland's surreal juxtapositions of time and space, the lacunae that Carl experiences serve to remind the reader of how precious and fragile our sense of self is. In many ways, this book is the rather safer equivalent of experiencing a particularly bad but mundane drug-induced hallucination. Oh, Carl is hallucinating all right, but it's not pink elephants or gray aliens. He may be hallucinating that he's alive. Garland knows how to prick the skin and send a chill deep into the reader's sense of self.

Pacing is an essential tool that Garland uses quite effectively in 'The Coma'. By writing in such short chapters, and by breaking up the text with the woodcuts, he manages to, on one hand, make the book easier to read in one sitting, but on the other hand, break up the reader's and the character's consciousness. Plus, if you're writing an entire novel about someone who is very likely to be in a coma, it helps to prevent your reader from plunging into a coma. Reading about someone else sleeping and hallucinating is not interesting in and of itself. Only good writing can make that happen, and Garland writes well enough to keep the reader riveted.

This is not to say that the novel is utterly perfect. In reaching for a dream-like state, Garland on occasion leaves the edges a little too blurred. More than a few readers might react to this novel by wondering what the heck exactly happened, though to my mind, it's fairly apparent. Garland does not waste a single word in this concise novel. Even random spew, supposedly the result of a disordered mind, is telling the reader something. Many readers will pass it by; I did. But on second look, it is fairly obvious; not only are you given very few supposedly random words in an otherwise tight novel, you are given the means of decoding them the first time you encounter them, if you read carefully enough. After all, Lexicons Often Offer Kafkaesque Adaptations To The Habitual Eager Fan, Interested Readers, Scholarly Taxonomists, Lazy Economists, Then To Every Reader. You'll be forgiven for not doing so, however.

But the point is that even if you don't know precisely what happened, you certainly will know you had a great time reading about it. And without a doubt, Garland will certainly bring a chill and scare you with the good old specter of mental illness.

There's actually quite a large literature of amnesia and mental dislocation. But few writers have taken as admirably a straightforward approach as Garland. The ambiguity of this type of story is handled here by those woodcuts and they are alternately humorous and horrific, their simplicity mirroring the simplicity of the prose. But there's no getting around the subtle chill that a big black patch of ink can create, and some of the simple, stark images here are as frightening as an entire gallery of clown portraits.

Ultimately, for some, 'The Coma' may prove to be too simple for its own good. But there's no denying that Garland has managed to re-invent the wheel -- or in this case, the coma novel. He takes a premise that we've all read or seen before and reworks it in his own words, words that are always a pleasure to read. And it's quite interesting to read a novel, which helps the readers escape their own perception, about the basic human inability to escape our own perception. We're all trapped in ourselves. Unless of course, we're glued to the pages of 'The Coma', in which case, we're trapped in someone else. Who himself is trapped. Like any great novel, 'The Coma' leads us back to ourselves.