Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack

notesAn alternate reality, almost familiar but hauntingly different.  A young genius dealing with a tragic incident.  A novel idea for incarcerating prisoners using a deep, medically induced coma.  These are the elements that come together in this novel to paint an unsettling portrait of J.J. O’Malley, a troubled young man recovering from a total breakdown who volunteers to be the ‘control’ patient in a three month deep coma experiment – the counterpoint to the criminals who have volunteered for the pilot project.

There is a lot that it good about this book.  Recounted from a multi-narrator viewpoint, J.J. O’Malley gradually appears as a conflicted, unsettled but highly intelligent subject.  Peppered with footnotes that create the atmosphere, the essential sense of otherness, of the Ireland that the novel is set in, the interview-style of the book gives a veneer of academic credibility to the story.  When done well, this single step to the side of the world we know seems an eerie reflection of something familiar as if the mirror is flawed somehow and we don’t quite recognise the image.   McCormack certainly has an interesting literary vision and this books attempts to realise that vision in an intelligent and thought-provoking way.

Therein lies the rub.  While the book has great ambitions, it doesn’t quite realise them for me.  In a multi-perspective book, the narrators have to speak with clear individual voices for it to be fully effective.  McCormack doesn’t quite achieve this here.  On more than one occasion, I found I had to flick backwards and remind myself who was speaking in a section.  The writing flowed, it wasn’t clunky or unnatural, but neither did McCormack move far enough away from his own authorial voice to allow the characters to truly speak for themselves.  I understand the effect that the footnotes were intended to have but, for me, they were just too many and too long and this interfered with the flow of the narrative.  I think the lack of distinct character voices could have contributed to this interruption because sometimes when returning from the footnote, I was momentarily distracted from the narrator and the voice was too indistinct for me to quickly re-establish a connection.  This affected how invested I was in the characters.  The book raises what should be interesting social and moral questions, the footnotes integral to this, however, I found that I was too detached from the characters and the events to be really intrigued or drawn on the ideas.  It is a fine line when trying to present a novel with an academic ‘voice’ and, for me, this doesn’t quite get it right.

Nonetheless, this is a book worth considering.  It is not a bad book, just not quite a great book.

Review Note:  This book was provided free as a e-book review copy via Netgalley.com

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