Each chapter in Alex Garland's wispy novella The Coma comes adorned with a woodblock illustration by Garland's father, a political cartoonist for London's Daily Telegraph. On the printed page, these striking cuts of black and white lack the definition and form of photographs or even drawings; instead, they register as dark Rorschach blotches, absorbing interpretation rather than dispensing it. Written in the ruthlessly pared-down language of a screenplay—which only seems natural, given Garland's script for 2002's post-apocalyptic zombie film 28 Days Later—The Coma, like the illustrations, relies heavily on the imagination to fill those blotches with color and light. How much readers get out of Garland's murky head-trip depends on how much they put into it, though the book's deficiencies shouldn't be entirely excused by its minimalism.
The early section shows off Garland's skill at conjuring paranoia and dread without wasting a lot of space: Judging by his breakthrough The Beach, 28 Days Later, and this novella, he's far more comfortable with setups than payoffs. While taking the late train on London's subway system, a man named Carl tries to stop four teenage thugs from harassing a young woman, but they turn on him instead, battering him into unconsciousness. Shortly after waking in a hospital bed, Carl gets released to his lonely apartment, but his new reality seems fractured and false, and blood seeps through the bandages covering his head wound. He goes to a friend's house for help, but doesn't quite understand how he got there, nor does he fathom how his former nurse, posing as a cabbie, shuttles him to a special ward. Soon enough, he comes to the conclusion that he may still be in a coma, which poses a metaphysical dilemma: How does he go about waking himself up?
To his credit, Garland sidesteps any obvious Twilight Zone conclusions by having Carl question his state of being from the start: Had the book ended with the hero realizing he was in a coma all along, the whammy would have surprised exactly no one. Yet just as Carl feels unanchored by any tangible reality, The Coma lacks the gravity of ideas, which leaves the narrative to drift along in the blinkered consciousness of a pot haze. For a while, it's liberating to toe through Garland's dreamscape without setting foot on solid ground, but after he swipes out the rug once too often, the whole thing feels like a silly prank. It's unreasonable to ask Garland to solve the mind-body problem, but loping around in alternate realms of being isn't the same thing as exploring them.