Friday, 11 March 2011

23/111 – The Coma by Alex Garland

Another short book, this is probably Alex Garland’s least known work. I remember distinctly that when it came out I was working in Blackwell’s and being intrigued by the illustrations throughout the book. I didn’t buy it at the time, having been scarred by the dreadful film adaptation of Garland’s best known novel, The Beach, starring my teenage dreamboat of that year, Leonardo Di Caprio. The trauma still being too fresh in my mind, I put aside The Coma.

Last year, I finally got round to reading The Beach, since the memory of the film had faded somewhat, and I found that I enjoyed it very much. I can’t really remember if the film was really as bad as all that – maybe I simply wasn’t ready for it, or too young to understand it. Maybe (probably) the book was just better. But I soon picked up a copy of The Coma and decided that I would read it one day, too.

The narrator, Carl, describes his journey home one night which ends in a severe beating, which puts him into a coma. In the days following, Carl wakes up and makes his way home to pick up his life and tend to his injuries. But is he really awake?

The novella that follows is full of strange dreams and blank spaces where knowledge of his own life should be. It explores the idea of our memories making us who we are. Carl, who is suffering from amnesia, cannot remember any details about his life, or even what job he does, and soon realises that in order to wake up, he must rediscover who he is. He spends his time shifting between struggling to find some way to jerk himself awake, and giving in to the pleasantness of his dream-world such as enjoying a day with his girlfriend, even though he knows it isn’t real.

I found that this book reminded me of lots of other things - the obvious ‘dream’ thing at the moment being Inception, but it also reminded me of Stephen Hall’s brilliant The Raw Shark Texts, in which the main character is losing his memory, but his future self is leaving notes for him to try and keep up with. Really excellent book.

Garland also evokes a brilliant feeling of unease and creepiness, helped in part by the illustrations which never really reveal that much, kind of like a veil across the action. The idea that he may or may not be dreaming is deeply frightening for Carl, and the ambiguous ending is kind of chilling.

Excellent. Read in one sitting.

Next: The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier

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