Alex Garland’s claim to fame is The Beach, a Thailand-inspired cautionary tale. While The Beach is a layered ensemble novel, The Coma strives for the opposite. The biggest drawcard here is the concept: a man’s perception of reality is warped following his emergence from a coma.
Look, I won’t beat around the bush. Although I consider this a short, worthwhile read, this book carried an unshakeable feeling of insubstantiality. Its narrative is a thin mechanisation, an exercise in cleverness. There’s no sense that Garland wants to immerse or entertain the reader. This is not a fully realised novel, but a vehicle for the author to explore his interest in the subconscious mind.
As it is, I think this might’ve worked better as a short story in a larger collection. Failing that, elements of it could’ve been reconfigured into a riveting scientific essay about dreamscapes. When assessed on its merit, it’s hard to regard The Coma as anything more than a shallow, flimsy narrative built around an interesting idea. The narrative lacks tension. It’s virtually impossible to invest in our protagonist’s plight because, by nature of the narrative, we’re not given any concrete information about him.
That said, The Coma exhibited crisp, focused writing. Similarly, the accompanying charcoal sketches (drawn by Garland’s father, Nicholas) were charming. Despite my early scepticism, I believe they genuinely heightened scenes. Also of note: I’m not sure I can recall a better written representation of what it feels like to dream. The narrative is hazy, dream-like. It’s also clear that Garland was fascinated by his subject, as the attention to detail here is undeniable.
Ultimately, though, these strengths are fleeting. As a reader, I needed more. I’m left feeling disappointingly ambivalent to the whole narrative, and so am struggling to further articulate what this book meant to me. All I know is that, while reading, I alternated between boredom and intrigue. Take from that what you will.