The Coma

by Alex Garland

Published by Riverhead Books

200 pages, 2004

Buy it online



Two-Hit Wonder?

Reviewed by Edward Champion


"There is a business side to writing and if you don't sell books then publishers won't print them. You're only as hot as your last novel. I think you can reach a point when you're not as good as your last novel, you may have written one or even two bad books in a row, and the publishers will hang onto you. But you need to have proved yourself in a long term way before that and I certainly haven't done that yet. I still feel like I'm doing an incredible bluffing trick and I'm going to get caught out." -- Alex Garland, interviewed by Nancy Rawlinson for Spike Magazine.

After bolting out of the gates with The Beach, which met both popular and critical success (and a sizable advance), Alex Garland drew comparisons to Graham Greene for his sparse, quasi-cinematic prose and his juxtaposition of Gen-X angst with westerners wandering exotic lands. Garland followed his debut up with The Tesseract, an inexplicably condemned novel that explored circumstance and coincidence, painted a percolating mosaic of the Philippines, and hinted at a deeper human intimacy germinating in Garland's gourd.

Then there was four years of silence. But Garland popped his head out of the sand to offer an explanation. He had writer's block and was addicted to video games. Shortly after, he banged out the screenplay for 28 Days Later. Now Garland has returned to the fiction gambit and we have The Coma, for which the typesetters at Riverhead deserve an award of dubious distinction.

Alex Garland's third novel is 200 pages, but this has been achieved only because the book has been split into three parts, with woodblock illustrations by noted cartoonist Nicholas Garland (Alex's dad). Indeed, 62 of the 200 pages (almost a third of the book) are devoted to the artwork. Additionally, the page numbers have been excised through most of the book. The text has been stretched and paginated in a manner that resembles a grad student trying to pad out a thesis to minimum length. To call The Coma a chapbook would be an understatement.

Granted, length is hardly the arbiter of quality. But The Coma is hardly Albert Camus. Its plot, which bears discomfiting similarities to the opening moments of 28 Days Later (a man emerging from a coma, trying to unravel his displacement), is as thin as its binding. The Coma is the sad revelation of a once fresh talent running on empty.

In The Coma, Garland's cinematic prose, which involved screenplay directions woven seamlessly into the narrative, lacks the edge and cadence of his previous two books. This time around, Garland opts for semicolons abruptly deposited into frag-laden sentences. They stick out like sore thumbs: " head and chest were bandaged; I was connected to machines."

Within two pages, it's clear that Garland is overreaching. We are introduced to a man named Carl, who is on the subway making "margin notes," only to be told a page later that he's "made more notes in the margins." A chapter opens "I didn't want to drink the coffee," only to include the same phrase five sentences later (along with a repetition of "unwanted mug"). Later, Garland writes, "Whether dreaming or waking, this is what I am," only to repeat the exact same sentence with italicized words just in case we didn't catch the gist before. I don't have anything against parrots, but for a book this slim, I wasn't expecting to toss out crackers.

The Coma is also filled with hideous and often absurd adjective combos, as if Garland has tried to transpose a Street Fighter power move onto the printed page. We're told that a noise is "humorless and predatory." Another noise is described as "startling and loud." Then there are the pedantic descriptions (which are echoed precisely in the illustrations): "all the hair on the left-hand side of his head was sticking directly up into the air." What purpose does this serve? Impertinent details or instructions to dad?

The Coma isn't without its moments. A trip to a bookstore and a record shop are entertaining digressions that recall Garland's culturally attuned ear (and made The Beach a big hit). But with The Dark Tower's urban identity crisis hovering in recent memory (with text and literal illustrations to boot), these two moments feel lifted from Stephen King's muddled riffs.

Alex Garland is in a position that most writers dream of. Young, financially flush and extremely successful. But The Coma is such a letdown that one wonders if Garland has fallen prey to the business side of writing. With his nest egg and fan base, there was no need for him to rush out this unpolished and instantly forgettable book. It's unfortunate that with his third effort, he's overplayed his bluff. | August 2004


Edward Champion is a writer in San Francisco. His satirical riffs on books can be experienced at his blog, Return of the Reluctant. He is currently prepping his play, "Wrestling an Alligator," for the San Francisco Fringe Festival.