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Notes From A Coma

By Mike McCormack

Mayo man Mike McCormack’s new book, his third publication after his spellbinding debut short story collection, Getting It in the Head, and his previous novel, Crowe’s Requiem, concerns J.J. O’Malley, a highly intelligent but troubled young man. Transplanted from a Romanian orphanage at the age of two to the small town of Louisburgh in the west of Ireland, courtesy of his middle-aged bachelor, small farmer, adoptive father, Anthony, he had every reason to be as happy, or as not unhappy, as any of his provincial peers. But the boy has no innate gift for it, even if his new life has a brutal way of dealing him blows which give him plenty to be discounted about.

After a sudden tragedy, in the shape of the freak death – in a bizarre physiological reaction to alcohol – of his best friend since childhood, neighbour boy Owen Lally, J.J. drops out of school and gets a job on a building site (that holiday home frenzy proving useful for once), much to the protestations of his head teacher, Gerard Fallon, who realises his intellectual potential. Determined in his underachieving route, J.J. even refuses an apprenticeship.

 

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Then, in an extreme incidence of delayed reaction, two years after his bereavement he suffers a catastrophic and debilitating mental breakdown, which leaves him briefly hospitalised and temporarily amnesiac. He cannot get over the conviction that he argued his best friend to death, much given as he was to disputatiousness, during which indulgences he followed the train of thought of what he calls his ‘mindrot meditations’, or his ‘remedial metaphysics’. Indeed, the most hilarious episode in the book is when the fifteen-year-old J.J. challenges his civics teacher over divine authority underwriting the constitution.

He is certainly very angry about something, not least the circumstances surrounding his birth and adoption. In his view, he was not saved because he was worthy, but because he was lucky. In fact, he wasn’t even saved, for as he tells his sweetheart, Sarah Nevin, ‘I was bought, I wasn’t saved…Imagine, you could go into any of those orphanages with a wad of used notes in your hip pocket and browse away to your heart’s content till you found some child you fancied…The US State Department estimates that ten thousand kids left that country in the immediate aftermath of the quote unquote revolution. And they don’t have a clue where they ended up. How many of them ended up in pornography or among paedophiles?’

Yet, it would be a mistake to conclude that either his angst over his origins, or his grief at Owen’s death, adequately account for J.J.’s malaise. For, as he tells Sarah on more than one occasion, ‘I’m not guilty of anything. I’m just guilty.’ Or, as one of the novel’s epigraphs, from Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’, has it: My guiding principle is this: Guilt is never to be doubted. Perhaps one of the novel’s five alternating narrators (the others being his father, neighbour, teacher and girlfriend), Kevin Barret TD, expresses it best: ‘The confusion about JJ’s state of mind arises as a result of all those articles which persist in confusing unhappiness with mental illness….Put simply, a person who is unhappy or sad or guilty or grieving is not necessarily a sick person. Sadness is not an illness, neither is guilt or grief; it does not have a pathology despite what all the New Age spoofers would have you believe. Whatever about being desirable it is a normal part of the human condition. And to say, as some have, that JJ was not in his right mind is pure arrogance. JJ’s right mind is a sad mind – that is his normal condition.’ There are individuals, as we learn through and from Beckett, who have ‘little talent for happiness’.

All of which preamble leads to J.J. volunteering for, and being selected to take part in, an improbable government project which has been set up to explore the possibility of using deep coma as a future option within the EU penal system. As the book’s other epigraph, from David Hume, reads: When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep, so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. Or, as J.J. writes rather more succinctly and enigmatically on his application form, ‘I want to take my mind off my mind for a while.’ So it is that during the real time of the narrative J.J. is floating in a maintained coma on a prison ship in Ireland’s only natural fjord, Killary Harbour, the only non-convict (or ‘control’) of the five guinea pigs taking part in the three month experiment.

When his coma goes online, in a bizarre parody of Reality TV, first the nation, then Europe, then the rest of the world turns to watch, and J.J. is quickly elevated to the status of cultural icon. Sex symbol, existential hero, T-shirt philosopher, his public profile now threatens to obscure the man himself behind a swirl of media profiles, online polls, and EEG tracings. The story ends with Sarah getting ready to go to his wake-up ceremony, musing, ‘So what does a girl wear to the resurrection?’

With much to say about predestination and free will, and the fragility of identity when it is constructed in the eyes of others, McCormack has fashioned another mordant yet funny fable for our times, rich in contemporary cultural reference. For all his debt to Eastern European writers, it is to the Americans he owes most, encompassing as he does the dark, gothic, rural terrain of Flannery O’Connor mixed with DeLillo’s apocalyptic suspicions about technology as an agent of spiritual chaos, all lightly peppered with the madcap paranoia of Pynchon. From David Foster Wallace he receives the imprimatur to reinstate the footnote as a respectable compositional resource. There is even a nod to Ballard’s sensibility, when Sarah says that ‘Car crashes are a right of passage thing for our generation – broken bones and stitches, our badges of honour.’ J.J. had himself first become attracted to Sarah as she lay in a coma, after an accident.

Despite all it has to recommend it, Notes From A Coma is probably McCormack’s weakest book, seeming curiously incomplete. Personally, I’d like to know what happens when J.J. wakes up and gets off the boat. By the same token, one still feels that McCormack’s best work is still ahead of him. There are market place pressures on writers, who might otherwise be temperamentally more suited to the short story, to produce novels. In this respect, probably the greatest influence on McCormack is the late, great American master of the form, Donald Barthelme, and it would be interesting to see McCormack writing in the shorter mode again. Because, whatever else it does, Notes From A Coma continues to demonstrate, as did both of McCormack’s previous books, that it is possible to be thoroughgoingly postmodern in the wilds of Co. Mayo.

First published in The Sunday Independent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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