Seeing things that may not be really there: The Coma, Alex Garland

Morning comes and you walk downstairs — you’re neither content nor down; this is a very average day, yet something, somewhere is missing. You ignore that fact. It’s bright outside and the feeling of being watched as you slept — you had almost forgotten this — has now faded. Just a silly thing: you were lying on your side in bed, dozing, and could just about sense this giant frog over your left shoulder. The frog had two big eyes and was white — an unusual colour for a frog, but you worked out that this was actually just a clever trick. The frog was just trying to be covert and blend in with the ceiling above it. Really though, it wasn’t a giant sinister frog at all; just the lights in your room, your brain re-arranging the shadows and shapes to create something for no real reason, really. Funny that a dream, or whatever it was, had you scared for a second, wondering what you were going to do: how does one kill a giant white frog?

Or maybe a reason, but there is always maybe a reason.

The first thing you do when you open the door to the living room is say Hi to your dog.

“How did you sleep?” you say.

Your dog is a Greyhound, black and white. She lies there horizontally, squeezed into her bed, one trumpet ear standing erect.

“How did you sleep?” you say again, and then smile and start to walk into the kitchen. You need to stop expecting an answer.

Sudden: “How do you think I slept?”

You turn around to find your Greyhound staring at you with beady eyes. Black and too-round like swans; friendly but a bit strange all at the same time. That feeling of weirdness lingers for a moment, before you decide that you’re the owner here: a dog shouldn’t talk to its owner like that.

You say: “Well, I assume you slept well, I could hear your tail banging on the carpet from upstairs.”

Your dog doesn’t have much in the way of facial expressions. You’re just guessing, but you’re still reasonably sure of a slight tenseness in her face.

“You assume.”

“Yes.” You fold your arms. “Is that not a fair assumption? Usually your tail bangs when you’re happy. Your eyes move too. Then you wake up a few seconds later and stretch and look at me and I always think you look bewildered. It happens most days and you never seem to learn.”

Your Greyhound kind of shrugs her shoulders, except dogs don’t have shoulders. But still, a shrug.

“You seem to think you know an awful lot about what goes on inside my head.”

She’s not looking at you now. You deserved that.

“Yes,” you say. “I suppose I do. Sorry.”

And as you turn away again, you hear her say: “look, any chance of some different food this morning? I’ve been eating that dried crap for 5 years, I’m really getting sick of it…”

Are you awake, or are you dreaming? (Clue: if you’re certain you’re awake then you will identify with the rest of this blog post very much…)

Carl has been beaten up. He has seen this event from outside of his body and he recalls what happened in the moments before it happened, and in the moment after…and then he gets signs. or, perhaps,  he’s been getting signs for a while — it’s all part of the confusion. Signs that actually, his perception may or may not be the way things really are. Soon, Carl learns that he should question everything. But there’s a problem: every answer brings another question…to say this is an endless circle is innacurate, though, as, at least ith an endless circle, you would know what to expect…

I found The Coma fascinating. I’d read a few reviews of the book when it came out in 2004, and had been trying to track down a copy ever since. I finally received the book in the post the other day and read it quickly; I could have tried harder to find it in the last few years I suppose, but every time I tried to order it it wasn’t available — all out of stock.

Whichever way you look at it, The Coma is a very disturbing book. The tone of the novel — a short novel, but still a novel — is embedded, almost to a colossal degree, with a sense of doom and too-many-things-unknown, and this, combined with Garland’s naturally unsettling ability to convey despair and dread makes for a read that is very difficult to review by way of comparing to other novels — even of a similar ilke. I thought that the best way was to begin this post with a sample of something you might experience if you were dreaming, but when you awoke you felt like you had been there, and really couldn’t separate out the truth from the fiction. These are things we can all understand the complexity of, and complexity drives this novel. The oddity being that the writing is fascinatingly simple and taught; not hard to read yet loaded and loaded and loaded…

But to say that The Coma is depressing — an assumption you may or may not have made, based on the above paragraph and the words dread and unsettling — is to ignore the greater meaning and gravity of the story. This is another bizarre aspect that Garland handles with what appears to be ease: one second you’ll be laughing, the next you’ll be questioning the metaphysical meaning behind the singing of a bird, or feel compelled to re-enter some long-lost vision you had, once; one that now seems real but you know maybe wasn’t after all. Who knows? We cannot go back.

Accompanied by black and white wood-cuts by Garland’s father, The Coma is not a long book, and its explorations are largely confined to the one-dimensional ruminations of one man searching for purpose, meaning and depth. Yet I would urge anyone put off by the ambiguous nature of the book — as with reviews which ask why there are so many questions left hanging — to consider buying, or at least borrowing this title. There’s no doubt that this is a million miles away from The Beach, but does that have to be a bad thing? I do believe a writer should have the power to explore and navigate without limitations, and that is precisely what The Coma does so well.

If you’re interested, my debut novel, The Number 3 Mystery Book, is available at Amazon UK here and Amazon US here. A review of the book can be found here. Thanks!


4 comments on “Seeing things that may not be really there: The Coma, Alex Garland

  1. miksmith says:

    Okay, you’ve successfully sold it – I shall now be looking out for a copy of, ‘The Coma’! 🙂


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