Saturday, 26 June 2010

The Coma – Alex Garland

On the last train home from a late night in the office Carl steps in to help a woman from being mugged and as a result to beaten into a coma by four men. This is how the first chapter of Alex Garland’s third novel unfolds. As is typical of Garland he doesn’t worry about making the reader feel safe or comfortable. We are given no time to settle in and within the first three pages this violent incident unfolds in front of the reader’s eyes; I was already hooked. What follows is a confusing maze around Carl’s brain as he tries to separate his dreams from reality and stumbles around his own unconscious in attempt to return to the real world and deal with his past.

Throughout The Coma Alex Garland convincingly captures how it feels to dream, from crazy, trippy, impossible dreams to lucid dreams where you are almost convinced you are awake. Unconscious episodes are a particularly brave subject matter for Garland to tackle in this way due to the fact that everyone has their own individual experience of dreaming, but he pulls it off with all the different emotions and environments of dreams being recognisable to how it feels to me to dream. Had he failed at creating this recognition from the reader the whole novel would have been lost as it is the key to understanding Carl’s situation and allows the world around him to act in its own peculiar way without the reader feeling totally confused. The use of language is so evocative that I really felt I was experiencing Carl’s anguish and confusion with him, rather than merely looking on. Garland plays within the ‘rules’ of dreams so that the experience of following Carl is disorientating at times without being purely random, and it is this that allows the reader to follow the overarching plot and also understand what is even happening almost all the time. Adding to the confusion and sense of unease experience as we lurch around Carl’s conscious and unconscious mind are a series of woodcuts created by Nicholas Garland (his father), which I enjoyed, however I know that some feel that they were used as padding. The reason for this is that The Coma is more of a novella than a novel. With a lot of blank pages and each chapter number also taking its own page, the art work adds another page that you can’t read and speeds up the rate of page-turning. Because of this I zipped through The Coma in under two hours, and as enjoyable as I found this I think I would feel cheated if I had paid the full £6.99 for it rather than borrowing it. Perhaps Garland could have done more with a longer story but I for one didn’t mind, I was just sorry it was over and left wanting more, particularly due to an enigmatic finish, that due to the subject matter I don’t think I should have been so surprised by!

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