The premise of Alex Garland's new novel, "The Coma," is remarkably straightforward: Coming home late from the office one night, Carl intervenes when a group of teenage boys attempt to assault the subway's lone other passenger, a young woman, and they beat him severely enough to put him into a coma. This all happens within the first five pages; what follows in the remaining 195 is an account of his long struggle to regain consciousness, a dark and sometimes terrifying story that derives its somber beauty from the directness and precision of Garland's writing.
We never know Carl's last name -- and for much of the book, he can't even remember his first -- but he is immediately sympathetic and real. His pre-coma life seems a small, rather sad affair full of bundles of paper and an all-important briefcase, but his voice as a narrator is unstudied, graceful and honest. When he wakes to a familiar and uncannily altered world, we don't pity him so much as identify with his displacement -- it is at first something akin to a feeling we've all had on days when a hangover or recent trauma or just simple lack of sleep has made the world into a stranger.
The tale, which despite the brief violence is at first light and airy, grows steadily darker as Carl begins to realize there is something amiss with the world to which he's woken up. His sense of passing time is oddly compressed, old friends act strangely toward him, a simple mug of hot coffee is suddenly and indescribably just, well, off. (The sense of slowly dawning horror is heightened by the woodcut illustrations that begin each chapter, made by the author's father, Daily Telegraph cartoonist Nicholas Garland.) As Carl begins to understand what has happened to him, he's forced to confront some very basic questions about his identity and his own consciousness.
Garland is perhaps less interested in the subtle complexities of the unconscious psyche than he is in plain old unconsciousness. It's a theme that runs through his work; there were small scenes in "The Beach," and more recently (and famously) in the film "28 Days Later" -- for which he wrote the screenplay -- where characters suddenly wake from or are knocked solidly into unconsciousness. Carl's description of his experience immediately following the attack -- "I saw myself in a series of slow snapshots that must have been separated by several hours if not days" -- sounds almost identical to a scene near the end of "28 Days Later."
In form, though, "The Coma" is vastly different than Garland's earlier writing, "The Tesseract" in particular. Whereas that book intricately wove together several individual stories, "The Coma" is essentially a story composed of a single arc, and this formal tic may, for some, be its big weakness. The title is a pretty obvious giveaway; as Garland writes late in the story, "there are no surprises here."
What the book lacks in plot twists, though, it makes up for in atmosphere and tone. Garland has been compared before to Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway; in "The Coma," he channels gloomier sources, the stories of Kafka or maybe Poe, or the novellas of German Romantics such as E.T.A. Hoffmann. Nothing here is fully resolved, and little is fully explained; we are, after all, dealing with a dream world.
Reading about a man in a coma has the potential to be just about as interesting as listening to a friend breathlessly tell you about last night's dream ("So, we were at your house, right, only it wasn't your house"), but Garland avoids that trap. The natural grace of Carl's voice is a big draw, and the scenes evoke the lunatic logic of dreams -- a bookstore stocked with classics, each comprising only their most well-known line typed over and over -- without being mere stereotypes of dreams. Only once does he throw up his hands, but in a way that's in keeping with Carl's frustration at trying to explain his coma: "Every dream that anyone ever has is theirs alone and they never manage to share it. And they never manage to remember it either. Not truly or accurately. Not as it was. Our memories and our vocabularies aren't up to the job."
"The Coma" resembles a novella in one other way: It's a quick read. With short chapters and plenty of illustrations, the book is well-paced for summer reading, perhaps best saved for one of those humid nights when the city has gone to sleep and darker things are stirring.