Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Coma — Alex Garland

Every once in a while, you will be faced with a book that holds what should be a recipe for success: it's short, it's structured and presented in an easy-to-read fashion, it's intriguing, and there are even little pictures scattered about, here and there. Yet, despite all this, it will take you ages to get through because there is just no reason to pick the book back up again once you've decided to put it down. It's books like these that I find particularly difficult to comment on. However, I will try.

The Coma, written by Alex Garland (the 'mastermind' behind the novel The Beach, as well as the films 28 Days Later and Sunshine) presents a straightforward story: a man finds himself trapped in a dreamworld after being put in a coma, and struggles to regain his memory in order to wake up.

This "man," whose true identity even he is unsure about, is Carl. His experience begins as a series of scenes in which he seems to awake, all of a sudden someplace new. For the reader, it is no mystery that he is dreaming, though it takes him a bit longer to figure this out. At least, long enough for us to start thinking "Is his dream-state supposed to shock us, too?" Well, there isn't much shock at all. Anywhere.

He discovers his situation soon enough, often philosophizing on the nature of being awake and what it means to be dead — probably the most interesting aspect of the book. Carl maneuvers through his dreams easy enough once he gets the hang of it, meeting people he either remembers vividly from his life or that appear only as blurry images. The most significant of these people is Christine, a woman he (ergo: we) believe to be his secretary, and who in his dreams he is having a passionate affair with. It is with her he realizes what is happening, and she helps him in his mission to trigger a memory that might prompt him to wake up.

And that is it. Carl and Christine continue on a short, fragmented journey through disjointed memories and images that Carl is able to unearth from the depths of his waste-bin of a brain. Carl never describes himself, and even though he doesn't know much (pst! amnesia) we still never find out much about him. It is for this reason I found it difficult to care much about where the book was taking me.

Where Garland's storytelling lacks in character and plot points, it somewhat makes up for with its structure, illustrating a breathtaking ability to capture — as much as can be — a written example of what it truly feels like to dream. Things aren't always obvious, people aren't always clear, places come and go, and time works in inconceivable ways.

Events move quickly, and though it took me longer than I care to admit to read this book (lack of interest, as opposed to inability to read), it is probably the easiest of any book I've ever picked up (that wasn't for children). Though it didn't particularly grab my interest, I do not feel it was necessarily Garland's fault. I feel as though a novel may not have been the artistic medium for this story. The entire time I was reading it, I tried to picture it as a movie (which was remarkably easy to do) and I found it far more enjoyable.

The writing is decent, the ideas are interesting and imaginative, but the novella seems to be written more as a fictional musing on the nature of dreams than a serious attempt at storytelling. I would say this is the perfect airplane book — something that is simple and reads like a movie on paper. It won't change your life, it isn't even that great, but you could finish it — no problem — if you've got an hour and a half to kill on a plane ride.


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