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Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack is a fantastic and unusual novel that strives to break many of the ‘rules’ of novel writing and gets away with it. On the surface, the story is about a troubled young man who decides to volunteer to be placed in a coma for three months as part of a public test of an experimental new form of imprisonment. But underneath, it’s a story about so much more: the slow strangulation of small rural communities through lack of opportunity; a commentary on the pervasive culture of low expectations in Irish life; and, an astute observation of the subtle ways a European legislative agenda has come to almost seamlessly and invisibly overwrite Ireland’s political life and process.
Mike McCormack tells the story brilliantly through the voices of five participants in the events described, but not through the eyes of the central character, JJ O’Malley — something that appears to be a sly comment on the individual’s ability to influence their own life in the modern world, as well as breaking one of the cardinal rules of the novel. We get JJ’s father’s concerned bewilderment, the voice of a well-meaning older generation unable to understand the half of their children’s world; his neighbor’s essential decency, the voice of the community in a sense; his old teacher’s tolerant hope, the (naturally clichéd) voice of modernism, of progress; his girlfriend’s approving passivity, the voice of hopeful but clueless youth; and the local politician’s cynical choreography of the whole situation so it reflects well on himself, without requiring him to actually poke his neck out of his profoundly conservative shell. The storytellers are wonderfully written, verbally colorful, distinct, even funny, and they give the voice of the novel the light, humane, entertaining feel that is the hallmark of good conversation in Ireland. As the old joke goes, the Irish can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you’re actually looking forward to the trip, and Mike McCormack has this ability in spades.
The other ‘half’ of the novel (although it probably accounts for less than 5% of the word-count) is made up of the ‘notes’ from the coma, footnotes that take a more academic, higher-level view of the coma project: an experiment to test the viability of putting prisoners into comas for the duration of their sentences, thus removing the ability of prisons to harden their population into master criminals, and reducing to overall cost of incarceration to the government. The voice of these footnotes is that of a slightly unhinged academic gleefully commenting on his work. Why many reviewers have praised the novel but felt the need to caution readers that it’s necessary to push through these footnotes as if they’re your necessary daily dose of fiber is beyond me. McCormack finds an erudition and lightness to this strand of the tale that belies the cold calculus of the economics of incarceration, and enables to novel to succeed as entertainment where it could have felt didactic.
The story of JJ O’Malley’s life that gently emerges is a sly mirror image of modern Ireland’s relationship with Europe: his adoption from central Europe, acceptance into the local community, the adoption of Irish ways and perspectives, leading to a existential struggle to know what to do with himself, indeed how to even think of himself. The Irish adapted to the great European experiment quickly, gratefully accepting the money and resources that flowed into the economy, but carried on as they always had done. Ireland is now struggling with the bill for those years, and must confront questions of national identity in a way that it hasn’t since independence.
JJ O‘Malley is blessed/cursed with an strong mind, but nothing particular to turn it to, except himself, and the riddles of his own existence. While others numb themselves with work, drink, or religion, JJ voices the endless questions and drives himself to a nervous breakdown. There’s probably a lot of Irish people who would welcome a few months away from worrying about their mortgage, their debts, their failing business. JJ O’Malley doesn’t offer a way out of our economic crisis, but he is an apt metaphor for the post-boom Irish psyche.
Irish lit is full of what I think of as “Directionless-young-bollixs-on-the-tear” novels. Inarticulate young men with nothing much to do, except feign cynicism and drown their uncertainty in drink. Every Irish male writer seems to need to get one of these books out of his system before going on to more original things. McCormack turns the genre on its head in many subtle and refreshing ways: JJ isn’t cynical at all, he’s disarmingly earnest; he’s a profoundly gentle soul, who turns the impotent rage inwards and thinks himself into an asylum, rather than going on a destructive rampage; and he has perhaps the most-decent father in the history of Irish literature. JJ is far more articulate than the average directionless-young-bollix, but perhaps his articulacy, coupled with his ability to appreciate every side of the story, every point of view, is as much of a problem as the inability to express himself?
Ireland has a suicide problem; whether to a greater or lesser degree than other countries I have no idea, nor do such comparisons matter. The apparent causes change from era to era — currently these can be summarized roughly as jobless young men in rural counties, farmers at the end of their credit, and teenage girls suffering online bullying — but the state of affairs has endured at least since the exodus from the countryside to the growing cities began, and probably much longer. You can read JJ’s decision as a temporary suicide, and the agonizing of his family and friends reads much like that of the bereaved, only without the raw, inescapable pain. The feeling is that the family, the community, even the enjoyment of life itself is diminished for those left behind when one person chooses to leave their company prematurely. That this leave-taking is not permanent, nor even the strange indefinite absence of emigration, appears to leave no less confusion. JJ’s enigmatic explanation for his decision (“I want to take my mind off my mind for a while.”) is as difficult for his family and friends to understand as silence. After suicide, everyone asks “Why?” McCormack’s novel seems to suggest that even if suicides could answer, we might not understand their reasoning any better.
Originally published before the Celtic Tiger sickened and died, Notes from a Coma reflects some of the contemporary undercurrents that the Irish are now bemoaning: a political system that strives to maintain the status quo and appease Europe, the dearth of opportunity for an educated population, an uncritical mass media that avoids uncomfortable questions. In those respects, Notes from a Coma now reads like a novel ahead of its time. It’s interesting that the book received a strong critical reception on publication (during the boom years), but poor sales. Five years later — after the bust of 2008 — it was being hailed by some as “the greatest Irish novel of the decade.” Now Mike McCormack is experiencing a bit of a comeback, with his first book, the collection of short stories Getting it in the Head, being republishing, a new volume of stories, Forensic Songs, out now, and Notes from a Coma finding a publisher in the US for the first time. Perhaps in the future this will come of be regarded as one of the touchstone novels of this period of Irish life?
An interview with Mike McCormack
This short interview was recorded as part of Poitics & Prose Bookstore’s reading series.