Fiction – paperback; Soho Press; 199 pages; 2013.
Mike McCormack’s Notes From a Coma was first published in the UK by Jonathan Cape in 2005.
This newly reprinted edition by American publisher Soho Press has a cover adorned in lavish praise: “The greatest Irish novel of the decade” (Irish Times); “The next step in Irish fiction…visionary” (author David Means); and “The finest book yet from one of Ireland’s most singular contemporary writers” (author Matt Bell).
Any wonder I was itching to read it?
At its simplest level Notes From a Coma is the tale of JJ O’Malley, a Romanian orphan who is adopted by an Irish bachelor and raised in the west of Ireland.
JJ’s childhood is a happy one, but his life goes off the rails as a young adult when his best friend — and the closest thing he ever has to a brother — dies. Plagued by guilt and grief, JJ decides to do something radical and volunteers for a Government experiment in which prisoners are put into a deep coma and kept on a prison ship.
So, on one level this is a charming, easy-to-read tale about one boy’s life in small-town Ireland, but on another level there is a strange science fiction element to it.
It gets stranger. This narrative arc of JJ’s life from birth to adulthood is told by five different narrators — his adopted father, a male neighbor, his girlfriend, a government minister and a teacher — who give us a well-rounded picture of a complicated and highly intelligent person.
Each narrator is looking back on JJ’s life and each is trying to put it into some kind of context now that JJ is taking part in a daring and controversial experiment, an experiment which has made him a household name across the globe.
This story is undercut by an excessive number of footnotes, which spark off the main text and delve into all kinds of topics, including neuroscience, incarceration and communications theory. So, while you’re reading about JJ’s childhood you might suddenly be transported, via a footnote, into a philosophical exploration of how the internet has changed the way we communicate with one another.
Of course, you could choose not to read the footnotes, but they do inform the text and add an extra layer of meaning to the novel’s main story arc. And they certainly made me think about many things in a new way.
Highly original read
The big question is: did I like Notes From a Coma? It was certainly odd and I spent most of my time trying to work out whether it was literary fiction, science fiction or complete bollocks, before I decided it didn’t really matter.
I was enjoying the ride and I liked the almost clinically morbid atmosphere it evoked. Indeed, it felt very Ballardian at times (I was occasionally reminded of J.G Ballard’s High-Rise, not least because McCormack seems equally obsessed at the notion of what happens to us when the veneer of civilisation begins to slide). Yet it was written in a graceful, elegant prose style, so typical of Irish writers, that it seemed at odds with the concepts and ideas being presented.
There’s no doubt it is an audacious book, bold and daring, and pushes the limits of what fiction can do. And while it has some unusual elements, the structure of the book — specifically its clever use of footnotes — means the flow of the main narrative is not interrupted. (The structure of J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year tried something similar, but there were three narratives in his novel all vying for equal space, which made it a particularly difficult read.)
Perhaps my biggest problem with the narrative (and the reason I’ve given it three stars and not four) lies more with the fact that almost two months after having read it none of the story has stuck: to write this review I went back to my notes and reread chunks of the book. But on the whole, this experimental novel is an intriguing, highly original read. It covers big themes — politics, crime and science, to name just a few — but at its heart it is a simple story about love, redemption and acceptance.