It’s been ten years since Alex Garland first put pen to paper for his hit debut novel, The Beach. He followed it with The Tesseract and, in 2003, the screenplay for Danny Boyle’s film 28 Days Later, which became the biggest grossing British film of last year.
The Coma, Garland’s latest, is different in scale from his previous work. It’s a little gentler in its delivery in terms of editing and ambition, but the real surprise is the novel’s use of black-and-white illustrations, woven into its pages.
The book is easy to read. In the time it took me to travel by train to Oxford, go punting on the river in the sunshine and return to Paddington, it had been easily digested. A young man travelling on the London Underground witnesses an assault on a woman by a gang of thugs and is consequently beaten unconscious for his moral intervention.
Thereafter, the story follows his recovery after lying for days in a hospital bed. But you are not sure if the young man is conscious, semi-conscious or, indeed, dead. The book has a chilling undercurrent, and deliberately plays with ambiguity, the darkness of shadows and meandering subconscious links and thoughts. Reality and dreams become one, the reader engaged in an uncomfortable search for the truth while trying to find comfort and grounding in a tangible reality.
There are no frills in Garland’s writing and he’s obviously worked hard on his edit, stripping the story right back to ensure a fluid and uncluttered read. There is rhythm to this book.
The illustrations – equally no-frills – are by Garland’s father, Nicholas Garland, a renowned political cartoonist. I prefer his woodcuts to his cartoons, but the working relationship between father and son, illustrations and words, is interesting and works extremely well.
It can’t have been easy to achieve. The romantic notion of working together on a project with your father would, in theory, be great, but the practicalities of the working relationship would have, in my case, broken down.
As a team, they have pulled it off. Garland senior’s illustrations are black and white, primitive in subject matter and play with the same unnerving, sinister ambiguity that his son evokes with words
The images are more than just decoration. They lend emphasis to the psychological trauma of the story. They fuel the ‘oddity’ of this book, ‘odd’ being used in a positive sense.
I recommend it on more than one level. It’s a great story to read, but also a lovely visual object to possess.
The Coma is published today by Faber & Faber, priced £14.99 hardback, £9.99 paperback
Jonathan Ellery is a partner at Browns