two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
12-Sept-Oct-2004
By: 
Alex Garland
user_rating: 
0
A-ComaCarl, the young narrator of The Coma, wakes up after a bad beating in the London Underground to find his life disturbingly altered. His wounds seem to reopen and bleed, and he arrives at a friend’s house without knowing how he got there. Carl wonders if the beating has damaged his brain, then comes to an even more frightening realization—he may never have awakened at all. But how can he find "the waking trigger"? Illustrated with eerie woodcuts by the author’s father, The Coma feels a little like a fevered dream itself. And at a slim 200 pages, it’s over almost as quickly.
Riverhead. 200 pages. $19.95.
ISBN: 1573222739

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Garland’s latest, a dreamy haze of a narrative … will only add to his reputation for intriguing, ingenious and intellectually stimulating fiction. … You’ll have to make this journey yourself, along with the brain-damaged, dream-besieged narrator, and suffer with him the ravages and rewards of living in a seamless narrative of descent into the underworld and the struggle to strike the surface once again." Alan Cheuse

South Florida Sun-Sentinel 3.5 of 5 Stars
" … [Garland] plays some tricky games on the reader by giving us precious few details about where we are or who this guy Carl is. … This lack of information forms an intense bond of curiosity between Carl and the reader." John Freeman

Oregonian 3 of 5 Stars
"The woodcuts illustrating the text add to the low-key strangeness, which may remind one of Paul Auster at certain points, or of the less well-known Karel Capek, even Franz Kafka to some extent. On its own terms then, as an experiment, The Coma is a success." Todd Grimson

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Garland writes like a screenwriter with short, tight bursts of details, and his chapters are structured like film clips—quick and intense, often only a few paragraphs in length. … Unlike the novels of a century ago with their dignified bulk, The Coma can be read in the time it takes to see a film. This crossbreed offers the limitations and richness of both forms simultaneously." Bernadette Murphy

Minneapolis Star-Tribune 2 of 5 Stars
" … The Coma is spare in its scope and piercing in its focus on subconscious metaphysics. … Extreme narrative devices can be limiting, and, indeed, at times The Coma reads like a dry writing exercise." Cherie Parker

New York Times 1 of 5 Stars
"Carl and the people who float through his consciousness aren’t characters, they’re ciphers, and no matter how doggedly Garland paces the blurred line between dream and reality, there is no getting around his story’s textural thinness. ‘Dramatize, dramatize,’ Henry James urged; aside from the opening scenes, the tendency here is merely to speculate, speculate." Anthony Quinn

Critical Summary

Most reviewers compared The Coma to comic books or film, perhaps because, as a novel, it doesn’t hold up terribly well. Its brevity necessitates some glaring omissions, such as Carl’s age and job, and it’s tough to care about the characters when we don’t know much about them. Garland aims not so much to tell a good story as to examine and perhaps replicate altered states of consciousness. Some find the project intriguing, but for most, Garland’s insights aren’t worth their narrative price. Blending illustration with a quick-cutting style that hearkens back to Garland’s screenwriting days (he wrote the film "28 Days Later"), The Coma may hold some interest for those who enjoy literary experimentation for its own sake. For others, however, it may prove unsatisfying.