Alex Garland
The Coma

By Robin Norton-Hale

A young man wakes from a coma to a world that resembles the one he knows, but which differs from it in nightmarish ways. Alex Garland's strange new novella The Coma revisits the premise of his 2003 screenplay, 28 Days Later, except he's replaced the voracious zombies for the vagaries of an unreliable mind.

Carl, the hero and narrator, is attacked by a gang of thugs on the tube late at night and kicked unconscious. Apparently waking from this state, he tries to pick up the threads of his life, but finds himself increasingly adrift from the reality he remembers. As carl experiences ever more bizarre shifts in time and place, he starts to believe that he hasn't woken up at all and that the 'life' he's leading is in fact an exploration of his subconscious.

After the phenomenal success of his debut The Beach – which was actually very good, though it's easy to forget this post-Di Caprio and Hollywood – Garland was always going to have a difficult task pleasing both the critics and the legions of fans he had won. The complex structure of his second novel The Tesseract impressed some and infuriated others, and it seems likely that his latest offering will do the same, with its curious mixture of very short, simplistic sentences ('That morning, this is what we did. We made love, we took a shower, then we went downstairs and had breakfast') and showy psychology.

That's not to say that the writing doesn't have a sense of humour – and the flashes of it that occur are all the more effective for being unexpected. Trying to jolt himself awake with a memory-catalyst, Carl visits a book shop. This sets up a sequence that satisfyingly sends up the way we misremember 'great works of literature': ' "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in want of a woman is a man in need of things that a woman with needs can want to universally acknowledge..." I closed the book with a snap. It goes on in a similar vein for another three hundred odd pages. It makes you wonder why they teach it in school, don't you think?'

Even these scenes are propelled by Carl's frustration and anxiety, and as in all of Garland's work, violence and fear are never far from the surface. But it isn't just this horror element which invites the comparison with 28 Days Later: The Coma feels like an idea for a film. Cinematic 'scenes' on every page are offset by noir-ish woodcuts created by Nicholas Garland, the author's father and political cartoonist for The Telegraph. If anything, The Coma is a picture book for grownups rather than a novel. The woodcuts are at least as responsible as the text for an unsettling atmosphere in which even a plate of toast and bacon seems doom-laden.

Adopting this experimental format could be considered a brave move, but it also allows Garland to skirt some of a novelist's major challenges. Characters are merely sketched, and a dream-plot always runs the risk of being a lazy narrative device. As Carl points out: 'everybody dreams, but nobody has ever managed to tell me what their dream was like. Not so that I really understood what they thought or felt.' An accurate observation, but one that gives the entire book a built-in excuse in case of failure. And while The Coma is atmospheric and thought-provoking, it is also vaguely unsatisfying, like listening to a description of someone else's dream.
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