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Sunday, July 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Book Review
'The Coma': A sharp meditation on reality and dreams

By Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

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"The Beach," Alex Garland's first novel, a pop-culture-saturated update of "Treasure Island," became an international best seller and was made into a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio. Garland's follow-up, "Tesseract," a weird crime novel, did not enjoy the wide appeal of "The Beach" but scored with the critics.

Garland then penned a screenplay, "28 Days Later," that was made into a movie directed by Danny Boyle, the director of "The Beach." The protagonist of the film wakes up from a coma to find himself one of the few humans left alive in a post-plague London inhabited by zombies.

"The Coma," Garland's third novel, initially seems closer in style and substance to "28 Days Later" than to his previous novels, but only initially. Upon examination, it's a nearly complete departure from his well-plotted earlier work. Billed as a psychological thriller, the book is actually more of an existential meditation on the nature of reality and dreams.

"The Coma"

by Alex Garland
Riverhead, 200 pp., $19.95

Carl, the narrator, attempts to defend a young woman on a London subway train and is beaten into a coma by a group of teenage boys. He seems to wake, leave the hospital and resume life, but it is soon obvious that he is dreaming.

He is living, in the vernacular of the drug world, totally in his head. His reality may be fractured, but he clings to the idea that he is still himself — he is his consciousness, not his body.

"As in, if I were to lose an arm in an accident, I'd still be me. Nobody would say I wasn't me. They wouldn't say, He used to be Carl, then he lost an arm, now he's John."

Written sharply in 200 pages — with illustrations by the author's father, Nicholas, a noted English artist and cartoonist — the book moves quickly despite its contemplative nature. The third act focuses on Carl's struggles to rejoin the world of the awake and leave behind a dream life he admittedly can't accurately describe. "Our memories and our vocabularies," he notes, "aren't up to the job."

Still, being a writer, Garland tries — and often succeeds.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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