Chief among its insinuating pleasures, Alex Garland’s spectral new novella drains the element of surprise from the most primitive of trick endings: I woke up and it was all a dream. The Coma concludes with an awakening—it even closes with that risible phrase, unsubtly encoded in an uppercased surge of seemingly random words—and the twist is there’s no twist. Waking, as the slumbering yet acutely self-aware protagonist observes, is “the most reliable part of a dream, as built into dreams as death is to life.” Haunted by its own incorporeality, The Coma wafts through the gray borderlands of consciousness, exerting a limpid, yogic mindfulness on the internal logic of dream life and the elusive act of waking.
The narrator, whose name may or may not be Carl, was apparently beaten senseless by thugs on the train one night. This much he thinks he knows. Carl describes the attack and its immediate aftermath from the perspective of a “remote viewer,” watching his comatose self in a hospital bed as a nurse tries to wake him. Soon thereafter, his mind safely returned to his body, Carl assumes he’s back with the living. But as his laconic account of daily events begins to take on a muffled strangeness, complete with causal confusion and temporal slippage, it dawns on the reader—and then on Carl—that he’s still deep in a coma (albeit one that permits a high degree of intellectual brain activity).
Divested of his identity, denied access to physical reality, Carl—or his thinking self—is jolted into a state of stricken sentience: “I could be anything with a consciousness.” Turns out the depths of oblivion lend themselves to the big questions of mind and body. “Is this what I am?” Carl wonders. “You could . . . keep stripping me down, until I was only a consciousness, suspended in a void. But, take away the consciousness, and suddenly I’m gone.” (Does this happen to all coma patients, or just the ones who’ve read too much Descartes?) Carl’s condition, truth be told, often approximates a particularly hermetic and concentrated fever delirium, or pothead reverie. His attempts to rouse himself are wryly pragmatic—”a layman’s guide to waking from a coma,” as he puts it. He scours the dreamscape for clues, mnemonic triggers that he hopes will impel him into the waking world. But in this shadowy realm, pop songs play in a loop and classic novels contain but a single sentence, repeated ad infinitum, and the conversations he has with friends who are never more than figments of his imagination are doomed to fruitlessness. Weathering a storm of existential freak-outs and intense epiphanies, he eventually attains a certain man-on-the-mountaintop Zen: “Strip down my waking life, and I’m a consciousness in a void. Strip down my dream life, and I’m a consciousness in a void.”
Garland’s protagonist acknowledges that the contours of dream life are not easily retraced: “Our memories and our vocabularies aren’t up to the job.” And so the author, fresh off screenwriting credits for the zombie movie 28 Days Later (this is his first novel since 1999’s underrated The Tesseract), compensates with visual cues: Each chapter opens with a starkly abstract black-and-white woodcut by his political-cartoonist father, Nicholas. Never settling for stereotypical dream imagery, Garland’s prose, more austere than usual but as screenplay-ready as ever, alternates strategic dissolves and jump cuts with killer freeze-frames (Carl immersing himself in a bathtub to locate a pin-sized wound). Indeed, The Coma often suggests recent movie head trips like Mulholland Drive and Waking Life. Like the latter, Garland’s book charts the adventures of a lucid dreamer, an intrepid oneironaut who’s aware he’s dreaming and who must finally reckon with the paradox that to wake, in a sense, is to die. On the brink of consciousness, Carl succumbs to an unexpected pang of sorrow: “When you wake, you lose a narrative, and you never get it back.”