THE COMA by Alex Garland


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Man gets attacked on train, goes into coma, wakes up—or does he?

Though British author Garland started out writing cinematically inspired, densely layered backpacker fiction like The Beach (1997) and The Tesseract (1999), his newest goes for something more terse, more abstract, and, ultimately, less interesting. Carl is taking the tube home late from work, still penning marks on some papers he’s carrying—a manuscript? legal documents?—when a gang of toughs gets on and starts harassing a girl who tries to get away from them by sitting closer to Carl. They follow, Carl intervenes, and next thing he knows he’s getting the holy hell knocked out of him. As “a remote viewer,” Carl watches his body in the hospital, the nurse who seems overly interested, his girlfriend/secretary, and pretty soon himself waking up. Not long after he’s supposedly rejoined the waking world, it becomes apparent to Carl that things aren’t the way they should be. While his life still seems to retain the basic parameters that he remembers—his girlfriend, his best friend Anthony—other details aren’t so reassuring. There’s that problem with vast swathes of time slipping away from him, and then the waking up covered in blood-soaked bandages, even though he can’t find a wound to have caused the bleeding. Carl figures out, long after the reader has, that he’s likely still in a dream-state, that no matter how many times he may think he has woken up, he’s probably still dreaming, as everything has that slippery, indescribable feel of dreams. But The Twilight Zone this isn’t, and Garland’s desire to pare his writing to the essentials hasn’t left much for the reader to grab on to. The blank march of pages is broken up by 40 block prints (by the author’s father, a well-known artist) but little else of interest.

Much like a dream itself: a novel that eludes definition, makes little sense, and is quickly erased from memory.

Pub Date: July 6th, 2004
ISBN: 1-57322-273-9
Page count: 200pp
Publisher: Riverhead
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2004


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