Here’s a scenario that will really bake your noodle. On his way home from work one night, a businessman named Carl is accosted by four thugs and then beaten into a coma. Miraculously, he wakes up several weeks later and is pronounced healthy, free to leave the hospital. To be safe, Carl takes a cab home this time and climbs into bed, but right away he knows something is wrong. In the middle of the night, he begins seeing things, hallucinating. Time lapses occur. Worried for his own safety, Carl returns to the hospital, where a nurse informs him he has not, actually, woken up from his coma. He is still dreaming.
This is the mind-bending plot of Alex Garland’s third novel, The Coma. If you’re the kind of reader who likes perusing 10 pages of a book before bed, be forewarned. Once you start this novel, it is physically impossible to stop reading. In between its three- to four-page chapters are spooky woodcut drawings crafted by Garland’s father, Nicholas, a cartoonist for London’s The Daily Telegraph. Coupled with Garland’s quicksilver prose, these images spawn a spooky and compelling atmosphere. Very quickly, it feels like you, too, are locked in the coma with Carl. And finishing the book is the only way out.
It’s of little surprise that Garland should cast so alluring a spell. His first novel, The Beach, chronicled a traveler’s quest for the last untouched vacation spot. His second, The Tesseract, told a story about three people whose lives overlap on Manila’s muggy streets. Garland also wrote the script to 28 Days Later, a film about a man who wakes up from a coma in London, one of the last survivors of an outbreak of a terrible disease.
In a sense, Garland’s tales have less to do with what happens than with the fugue-like states of his characters’ consciousness, cooling his prose down to its most liquid essence. He also plays some tricky games on the reader by giving us precious few details about where we are or who this guy Carl is. For example, Carl apparently does something with paper and takes a subway to work, but that could place him in any major metropolitan city. We know he has a secretary named Catherine, but she might be his wife or lover.
This lack of information forms an intense bond of curiosity between Carl and the reader. Later on, after he tries simply to shout himself out of his coma, Carl realizes that discovering his identity is a necessity. It is the only thing that will wake him up. In the wake of this epiphany, Carl adapts to his coma as Neo does to the computer program of The Matrix. Carl learns how to switch scenes and pause time, how to glean information from the one-dimensional people in his dream. At one point, Carl even summons the cab driver who took him home from the hospital to lead him to his childhood home, where he hopes to find a memory or some clue to his identity.
Even though we know Carl is in his coma, each scene begins with a frisson of excitement because it’s never clear whether he has woken up or not. If this gamesmanship isn’t enough for you, The Coma might also be the most perfectly paced novel to emerge since Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam. Garland has borrowed the formula of the cliffhanger, so each chapter ends unresolved. With the next chapter running a mere three pages, it’s hard not to read one more—and then one more. In this fashion, Garland leads us deeper and deeper into the Escher-like maze of one man’s altered consciousness. Lucky for us, we can wake up from it.
Or can we?