Book Review

The Coma by Alex Garland


Title: The Coma
Author: Alex Garland
Publication Info: Riverhead 2004
ISBN: 1573222739
Genre: Literary Fiction

Dude tries to stop some young thugs from beating up a sweet young thang on the tube. Dude gets the crap kicked out of him. Dude falls into a coma. Dude enters into an incredibly self-conscious reverie as he attempts to wake himself up from said coma.

And there we have the entirety of Alex Garland’s The Coma. Not all stories with simple plots are brief or insubstantial, but both are true for this book. And when I say brief, I mean brief. It’s only 208 pages, it’s a smaller-than-average hardcover book, every chapter starts with a woodcut illustration, and the font is big. If you’re a book size queen, you’ll barely notice this tiny tome.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book. It’s just that, as a whole, the story was obvious and, well, kind of juvenile. If a precocious high-school kid had been given a writing assignment about the nature of consciousness, she might’ve come up with something like this.

The concept itself is pretty damn cool, but if you were made to suffer through Descartes or Waking Life at some point in college, this book covers much of the same ground. What is being? What is reality? What is the nature of consciousness? What is the nature of perception? Unfortunately, this book doesn’t offer anything new, insightful or particularly interesting.

A few of aspects of the book manage to save the story from being utter drek. The surreal yet concrete nature of the coma patient’s experiences mimic the dreaming state quite credibly. Three scenes in particular—one in the narrator’s bathroom, in which he discovers he’s bleeding, one in a music shop and one in a bookstore—are truly excellent. These scenes, however, are fleeting, and the deeper ramifications are left unexplored.

Garland’s prose style, as always, is gorgeous. If sacrificing shaved gerbils at the altar of the ancient Sumerian god Manititti would help me write sentences as clean and beautiful Garland’s, my house would be well-stocked with really tiny razorblades.

(Don’t worry, the gerbils are safe. I’m content to envy Garland from afar.)

The woodcut illustrations for the story, courtesy of Garland’s father, Nicholas Garland, are also gorgeous. On one hand, they add a certain oomph to the book. On the other hand, I couldn’t help feeling that they were used to pad the pagecount.

After the wonderful stories Garland offered in The Beach (get the British version, the American version seemed to be modified quite heavily), The Tesseract and 28 Days Later, The Coma hath broken my fangirlish heart.

OK, not broken. But it’s dinged quite severely.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Stephen says:

    Hmmm, everybody raved about The Beach, so I read it and, well, it was OK, I suppose, but not exactly the world-changing experience I’d been promised (and that was the UK edition, natch). The hero needed a slap on far too regular a schedule, but I wasn’t sufficiently involved to give him one.

    So I haven’t bothered with The Tesseract or The Coma, and on the basis of that review, I don’t think I was wrong.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. 2
    fiveandfour says:

    Thanks for this review – I’ve been meaning to pick the book up and see what it was about (“The Coma” seemed an intriguing title – I wondered what it could mean, where a story with such a title could go), but you’ve saved me the trouble of trying to remember next time I’m at a bookstore or library.  My mind was recently expanded quite drastically by watching “What the (Bleep) Do We Know?” and I’m still processing the ramifications of some of the things I learned there (particularly the water experiment thing); I think my disappointment with “The Coma” would have been quite severe after the Bleep experience.

  3. 3
    Candy says:

    Stephen: I wanted to smack the hero of The Beach quite a few times, too. But I think that was part of the charm of the book for me. I’m perverse like that sometimes. Irvine Welsh has written a few books in which the narrator is downright awful (Marabou Stork Nightmares, Filth) and I still enjoyed it. Come to think of it, the hero of High Fidelity by Nick Hornby deserved smacking, too. Hmmm, what’s with all these first-person male narrators whom I want to hurt? But The Beach probably rates as one of my all-time favorite books.

    fiveandfour: If you want some decent mind-bendiness from Garland, you can try The Tesseract. I liked that one quite a bit. If you’re interested in books with comatose narrators but not necessarily into the whole expand-your-mind thing, I recommend Marabou Stork Nightmares. Not for the faint of heart, because the dude’s a nasty piece of work and you get to see a lot of what he does up close and personal, but the way Welsh plays with language and the visual nature of text is pretty fun.

  4. 4
    HelenKay says:

    At the risk of being called a dumbass I must admit I’ve never heard of this book.  Also, not a big fan of the smack-the-hero feeling being referenced about the author’s other book, so maybe that’s why.  Really, I prefer my heros to be the smackers not the smackees.  [NOTE: I do not mean that for real life so no one send me a abused persons brochure.]

  5. 5
    Candy says:


    OK, not really.

    And I’m one of the few perverse people I know who enjoys reading books featuring protagonists who aren’t particularly likeable. My husband, for example, can’t stand books without clear heroes. I made him read A Sacred Hunger a year ago and the lack of a clearly sympathetic hero drove him batshit bonkers.

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