The Coma, by Alex Garland

Waking or dreaming, this is what it is? THIS?
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Once upon a time there was a cult novel called The Beach, which had a killer hook embedded in its opening pages. Its lucid, cinematic prose captured the spirit of restless youth, the search for inner harmony and the brutal intrusion of reality. It rightly won the Betty Trask Award and was dropped into every backpacker's bag, resurfacing as a slightly less satisfying star vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio. Then came The Tesseract, three confusing Manila-set stories knitted together at the climax, which divided readers expecting the same graceful chillout highs of his debut novel. Apart from the screenplay of 28 Days Later, a familiar apocalypse scenario rendered fresh by Trainspotting director Danny Boyle, there has been silence, and a well-publicised case of writer's block.

Expectations are therefore running high for The Coma; can Garland break the curse of early mega-success? Certainly, the tale gets off to a flying start. On the way home from work, Carl defends a girl on the tube from muggers and is kicked into unconsciousness for his trouble. Discharged from the hospital, he experiences dropout periods in time, and finds his sense of reality subtly altered. Could it be that he's still back in his hospital bed, lying in a coma, and if so, how can he will himself out of it?

Garland is terrific with the detail of sensations: "It was a slight lift away from the floor I stood on, as if I had become lighter. It was the feeling after you've put down a heavy bag you've been carrying for a while, that your shoulders are drifting towards the ceiling." He possesses an innate visual sense that forms a direct connection with the reader on every page.

The problem here is the third-hand story, one of the most familiar staples of filmed horror and fantasy fiction (from An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge and Jacob's Ladder to the upcoming Trauma) to which very little is added in originality.

It doesn't help that this introspective sleight of hand unfolds in only the vaguest of detail, and veers off into a four-in-the-morning stoner monologue just at the point where intrigue and tension should be ramped. As Carl puts it; "So: whether dreaming or waking, this is what I am. Whether dreaming or waking, this is what I am? THIS?" Garland opts for repetition to explain Carl's attenuated mental state, but it feels like padding, for this extremely slight book is in fact a short story tricked out as a novel, bulked with plenty of woodcuts, blank paper and carefully unnumbered pages.

Such short fiction needs to provide powerful resonance beyond a revelatory, haunting conclusion, but the waking-dream theme of The Coma has been handled with far greater delicacy by many previous authors, and the painful slimness of this version robs it of any power. If the tale had headed a volume of short fiction, one could be a little more forgiving, but there's nothing to hold on to, and enough obfuscation to suggest that the Garland's block is far from removed. Most annoying of all is the knowledge that he can be a genuinely thrilling writer; what he needs now is a story as strong as The Beach.