"Everybody dreams. Everybody dreams, but nobody has ever managed to tell me what their dream was like. Not so that I really understood what they saw or felt. Every dream that anyone ever had is theirs alone and they never managed to share it. And they never managed to remember it either. Not truly or accurately. Not as it was. Our memories and vocabularies aren’t up to the job…when you wake, you lose a narrative, and you never get it back."
How to describe Alex Garland’s strange little book The Coma, which I brushed off sleepiness to finish in under two hours last night? The plot, to whatever extent one can be sure of it at all, is something like this: a young man, on his way home after a late night in office, is badly beaten up by four thugs on an underground train. He recovers, goes back home, but soon – through a series of dislocating experiences – comes to the conclusion that he is in fact still in a coma and that he must grope his way back to consciousness by drawing on memories and sensations from his life prior to the assault. (The distorted perspective of his dream life is illustrated throughout the book with woodcuts done by Nicholas Garland, the author’s father and the Daily Telegraph's political cartoonist.) As the novella concludes, he may or may not be on the verge of waking up.
I haven’t given much away, this isn’t a book with a surprise ending and the reading experience counts for more than the resolution. But mesmerising though it was, I also found it unsatisfying in a way (not that that’s necessarily a criticism for a work of this kind). Strangely enough, I thought one problem with it was that it wasn’t vague enough; it’s almost too expository, the way the narrator understands and articulates his predicament. Or maybe there are more layers to the narrative structure and I haven’t gone deep enough into it.
What The Coma definitely is, is an addition to the canon of books and films (many recent) that blur the line between the conscious (our tangible experience of reality) and unconscious worlds. Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled (which I’ve blogged on before) is the definitive example for me so far – a book that comes disorientingly close to reading like a dream/nightmare; quite an achievement given it’s over 500 pages long. (Incidentally, Ishiguro said in an interview: "In a way I've started to care less and less about what's happening out there [indicating the world at large] in some kind of supposed real world. I've become more and more interested in what's happening inside somebody's head.")
In film, the tradition goes back at least to the collaboration between Bunuel and Dali, who made Un Chien Andalou by putting together half-remembered material from their dreams (Bunuel sees a sliver of cloud bisecting the moon, Dali sees a razor slashing an eyeball, so fine, juxtapose the two images and let film critics debate the meaning till the end of time). But one of the most ambitious (and most frustrating) movies of the last decade was David Lynch’s masterpiece Mulholland Drive, a film that cannot possibly be explained completely (sorry Ajitha) – or at least, cannot be explained completely with "waking life" logic, the way a movie like Memento or The Usual Suspects can.
Another such film I have a fondness for is Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky, which was dismissed by many critics as an overblown, self-indulgent exercise by Tom Cruise (the producer and star) to come to terms with the fact of his turning forty. Or: How to Trash a Big-Budget Hollywood Production Just Because it has a Major Star in it, Without Taking the Time to Consider its Intrinsic Merits. The original Spanish film Abre los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) was excellent, but I thought Vanilla Sky was much more than a Hollywood remake that diluted a superior foreign movie. It certainly wasn’t a thoughtless assembly-line copy: Crowe makes very interesting use of iconic images and motifs from American popular culture (the Bob Dylan album cover, the image of Gregory Peck as the noble, all-American Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird), suggesting how they work their ways into our sub/unconscious. (Given the way American pop culture has proliferated around the globe, this is relevant to all of us now, not just the Yanks.)
If you’re interested in the themes of conscious-unconscious/reality-dreamlife, try to get your hands on the new Alex Garland book. Only, don’t go confusing it with Robin Cook’s Coma please. And if anyone has recommendations of other books/films in this vein, please suggest. I’m very interested.
P.S. just found this link on The Guardian website, where Garland mentions The Unconsoled in the context of his own book.