Deleted Notes from a Coma

 

Earlier this month I was notes-from-a-comadelighted to contribute an article to the Irish Times about Mike McCormack’s 2005 novel Notes from a Coma (the story of JJ O’Malley, a troubled young man who volunteers for an experiment in the use of deep coma within the EU penal system).

As with any piece of writing, I am left with a handful of notes and observations that didn’t make the final cut (mostly because they didn’t fit with the direction the piece went in or they exceeded the word count; in one or two cases because they’re nothing more than asides). But I thought it might be fun to share the excised bits and some of the thinking behind them here as a kind of addendum to the article itself …

  • I made an effort to structure the piece as a reflection of the novel, with JJ O’Malley at the literal centre of things. Though that didn’t quite work out! Thus my discussion of how JJ lies at the centre of the book’s singularity is a little more than halfway through the article.
  • The sense of JJ O’Malley as a Jesus figure is compounded by his adopted father and virgin mother… of sorts (the latter being the Romanian nun who runs the orphanage where he lives as an infant).
  • The five narrating characters essentially offer five gospels of JJ O’Malley.
  • On the “contingent riffs” (what people have mistaken for footnotes) which form the broken boundary of McCormack’s effort to inscribe JJ’s story as widely as possible: It is surely no accident that “riffs” (the author’s term) contains a phonetic echo of “rifts”, and so suggests tears in narrative integrity.
  • One striking comment about three-quarters of the way through the novel describes how “fiction and history are put through narrative loops beyond all unravelling”. It serves as a nod to the Irish experimental fiction tradition – which Notes from a Coma is consciously situated in relation to – and, just maybe, specifically to a work like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
  • The participants in the novel’s coma remind me of another group of sleepers wired up to machinery aboard a ship (and in their case receiving literal messages from the future): the subjects of Galania’s Exordium experiment in the Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds.
  • McCormack’s Louisburgh is an important and increasingly storied part of his fictionalised Mayo topography (look no further than the recent Solar Bones). Given time it could yet become an Irish analogue to something like Stephen King’s Castle Rock.
  • One of the key themes of the novel is the struggle to resolve the spiritual with the scientific: the question of self-definition against “the technological phenomena of image and information dispersal”. Hence the novel’s obsession with ghosts as much as with digitality.
  • Note the book’s original cover (pictured above): A child – “the type of face new Ireland doesn’t wonder at anymore” – considering their own reflection. Or, just maybe, his own ghost…

Notes from a Coma will be republished by Canongate next year as part of their Canongate Classics series.

___

Other posts you may find of interest:

Advertisements

I’ve finished reading Revenger by Alastair Reynolds and, look at that, just in time for Talk-Like-a-Pirate-Day…

revengerRevenger
Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz; £14.99
Review: Val Nolan

When ya first clamp yer lamps upon the nightblack new tome from Welsh landlubber Alastair Reynolds yar grey’d be wonderin’ what it is dis author’d be at. Cove’s tellin’ tall tales in a mismatch ‘a piratespeak ‘n technobabble? Ancient skulls whisperin’ t’each other across the night? Fifty million worldlets circlin’ the Old Sun like islands in the sky? Yet when the book spills its secrets like so much fancy loot ya quickly sight the glimmer o’somethin’ worth yar quoin, a swashbucklin’ ‘n unapologetically pulpy tale filled with sly-eyed characters ‘n daring-do. Whereas the last Reynolds voyage, Poseidon’s Wake, dallied for sure with Gulliver’s Travels, Revenger is more’a piece with Treasure Island: a comin’a’age yarn run through with’a cutlass o’moral ambiguity as the young sisters Adrana ‘n Arafura Ness light out inta the Empty with Cap’n Rackamore in search o’baubles ‘n fortune.

The Ness sisters be green but they both got the aptitudes, the skills for readin’ the alien bones which allow ships to communicate instantly over the interplanetary seas. That makes ‘em valuable to a captain like Rack, atop a’which they’re eager to tackle their share o’hazard by pickin’ over the ruins o’dead worlds shielded behind dense energy fields “like god’s own scab”. But things ain’t all peachy out on the edges o’the Swirly ‘n when their ship is murderously jumped by the ruthless pirate Bosa Sennen, Adrana ‘n Arafura are separated. The former is taken prisoner by the vicious Bosa; the latter carried by fate ‘n law back to her family ‘n an insidious bout o’pharmaceutical gaslightin’.

Things are thus knottier at the sharp end o’the story. The yo-ho-ho o’the opening salvo gives way to a darker aft half and the development o’Arafura, the prim and proper book-learned “girlie”, into just Fura, someone “harder and scowlier and [who] knew what needed to be done…” Her arc rigs a taut plot cuttin’ quick through a universe rich for the narrative plunderin’. Reynolds doesn’t hold back on the blood ‘n violence neither, not when close action is called for, while his taste for “wrong things […] things against the common laws o’nature” seeps through in the “Ghostie gubbins”, the high-tech treasures buried in the shivery places o’long gone civilisations.

Settin’ a course ‘tween the near-future plausibilities o’the Poseidon’s Children trilogy ‘n the cold hard sci-fi Gothicism o’the Revelation Space series, Revenger offers an adventure that t’aint hard to sign aboard for, an engagin’, shipshape, ‘n standalone (for now) Reynolds space opera which the author anchors deep in character. Tis a fast read for all the right reasons ‘n, with more than one unexpected tack that’ll have ya gaspin’ for lungstuff on yer way to its satisfyin’ final port o’call, Revenger is a story that oughta put the spur for more in any reader.

___

Other posts you may enjoy:

Ten thoughts about Barkskins by Annie Proulx

BarkskinsFor the last fortnight I have been making my way through Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, a 700 page generational saga following two North American logging families from the late-1600s to the present day. It’s a novel that brought me terrific enjoyment (it wasn’t unknown for me to wander around the house reading passages aloud to anybody who would listen!) and one which I’m somewhat bereft to have finished (and yet I couldn’t not finish it).

Here are ten things (be warned, *minor* spoilers ensue) that stood out to me about the book…

  • If there is an underlying structure to Barkskins, it goes something like: beautiful prose, beautiful prose, beautiful pose, SOMETHING TERRIBLE HAPPENS, beautiful prose, beautiful prose… In that way the novel has a rhythm. Like chopping a tree until it comes crashing down and then starting again on the next one.
  • Barkskins feels like the LitFic novel you give your friend who only reads Science Fiction: colonists arrive in a distant new world, begin to exploit it to the detriment of the native inhabitants, and along the way develop new social structures and technologies (an unexpected aspect of the novel was how it touched upon the development of things such as modern paper, plywood, and prefabricated buildings). Moreover, Barkskins ends where an environmentally focused science fiction novel, say something by Kim Stanley Robinson, might begin.
  • The novel is a masterclass in showing and telling as appropriate (the “gearbox” approach as I like to think of it). Long stretches of time are covered quickly via telling and then Proulx slows things down to bring to life – to show us – the figures who intrigue her the most. One appreciates the richness of these dramatized sections all the more for the deftly sketched historical backdrop which Proulx plays out their lives against.
  • The reader ends each section reluctant to leave the character(s) they have been following. Thus one begins the next section almost resentful towards the new cast… until Proulx works her magic and one falls in love with/reconnects with the next set of protagonists, ending that section hungry for more, and beginning the cycle anew.
  • This passage:
    Barkskins Page
  • “Ships get built in the woods”. I love that observation.
  • The multitude of characters living through the novel’s three hundred years allows Proulx to explore a whole spectrum of sexualities and relationships. Which she does with maturity and sympathy. It goes a long way towards humanising the book’s protagonists and ensuring that each generation is not merely a carbon copy of their predecessors.
  • The obvious way of summarizing Barkskins is as a novel about the denudation of the vast North American forests but, flipping that around, it is also a story of just how destructive the relentless accumulation of capital can be to both one’s humanity and to the environment.
  • Lavinia Duke is such a wonderful character! This is all.
  • Proulx’s prose is obviously a major draw here but she always remembers that a novel has to not just be beautiful but also to entertain. She therefore weaves an almost pulpish quality into Barkskins, especially as the book progresses: for instance, the reader is regaled with the ghoulish tale of a burning railroad car rolling through America full of charred corpses; a key character freezes to death instantly on the shores of the Great Lakes where their body is left standing like a statue; a mad scientist reveals that his greatest invention is actually just a gigantic block of stone, and so on. Such moments have a borderline Pynchon quality but, simultaneously, one wonders just how many of them are based on real anecdotes which turned up during Proulx’s research…

Last year the English Department where I work asked staff members to recommend a book for a shelf – a miniature library of sorts – from which students could borrow and read. If we do that again this September then I might just name Barkskins as my pick… 700 pages be damned!

Other posts you may find of interest:

Stephen Baxter’s Titan: Twenty Years Later

TitanIt is almost two decades since Stephen Baxter’s Clarke Award nominated novel Titan (1997) first appeared. I have been reading it over the past week and despite its transformation into “a period-piece, a description of a lost alternate world,” it is impossible not to be struck by the prescience of a novel in which Baxter correctly predicts things like the destruction of the Space Shuttle Columbia, a widespread American rejection of science, and – in all but name – the rise of Donald Trump.

Set between the early-2000s and the present day, the novel follows an outlandish, years-long crewed mission to confirm signs of life on the titular Saturnian satellite. It is a sprawling, multi-faceted work told from the perspective of nearly a dozen characters including American and Chinese astronauts, beleaguered NASA administrators, Moon-landing veterans, rogue US Air Force officers, scientists, and journalists. Its near six hundred pages are rigorously researched (occasionally to Titan’s detriment) and it displays a strong thematic link to both Baxter’s other NASA novels (Voyage, 1996, and Moonseed, 1998) as well as to later work like 2009’s Ark. Indeed, the unrelenting “squalor and crap of [the characters’] lives aboard the spacecraft” (recounted over long stretches of Titan and Ark) is almost enough to make a person think twice about deep space travel.

Just as uncomfortable is the accuracy by which Baxter predicts contemporary life on Earth from his mid-1990s vantage. “It seemed America was likely to lapse into fundamentalism, and isolationism, and a kind of high-tech Middle Ages,” we are told as the novel charts the rise of a regressive energy which recasts science as a “spiritual dislocation” and sees creationism and Aristotelian physics made cornerstones of school curricula. Yet the eeriest aspect of Baxter’s almost precognitive world-building in Titan is the character of Xavier Maclachlan, an ambitious, rabble-rousing Republican who harnesses popular discontent into a presidential run. Maclachlan is, in essence, Donald Trump: A “nationalist-populist” who promises to “build walls around the nation” both metaphorically and physically.

One cannot help but think of Trump supporters being told to bring their firearms to polling places when reading about “armed militia bands” converging on Washington to support Maclachlan. Like Trump too, Maclachlan’s followers include members of the Ku Klux Klan and there is a rumour that “a former Klan leader was being made ready to become a future White House chief of staff”. Though of course the real clincher is how Maclachlan pushes for “a wall, two thousand miles of it, along the Mexican border, to exclude illegal immigrants”. All of this grants Titan a contemporary feel further bolstered by the fact that much of the book takes place during 2016.

An extended thought experiment as much as a science fiction story – something especially true of the final section – Titan is not a perfect novel (the writing isn’t necessarily Baxter’s strongest) but it is one which wonderfully captures the sense of wonder at exploration and the possibilities of the space programme. Nods to Clarke (a significant influence here) and Bradbury jostle for space alongside references to Flash Gordon, Buck Rodgers, various incarnations of Star Trek, and other science fiction staples. This is a novel where the characters are in love with the idea of space travel and, in particular, with the heroism of the Apollo era. Still, for all of that, the reality of their experiences is surprisingly downbeat. The back half of the book is relentlessly grim as Baxter’s astronauts struggle to survive first the journey to Saturn and then the sucking methane slush of their new home all while their old one collapses under Maclachlan’s malign influence.

In an afterword from the year of publication, Baxter muses on how the then recent loss of Carl Sagan (who plays a small role in the novel) immediately rendered Titan “an alternate history”. Nonetheless it is the potential future history of the novel’s final fifty pages which seems to have consistently been Titan‘s most divisive element. Depending on your perspective, the book’s conclusion is either a whiplash inducing tonal three-sixty or a textbook example of what The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction memorably called Baxter’s “sweet-tooth for the eschatological climax”. Personally I would place it somewhere in the middle: an ambitious, left-field dénouement which cuts the novel’s hard science with something much closer to the fantastic. It is obviously fuelled by the author’s longstanding interest in evolutionary science (seen again in the stories of, as you might imagine, 2002’s Evolution) and it provides perhaps the happiest ending possible given everything that has come before. Is it a perfect landing? No, but in its messiness and aspiration it is as true to life as anything which Baxter’s astronauts encounter on faraway Titan.

____

Other posts you may find of interest:

Thoughts on Emma Newman’s Planetfall

PlanetfallThe affecting, twisty-turny, and beautifully written Planetfall (ROC Publishing) is easy to recommend but difficult to review because, honestly, the less you know going into it then the better your reading experience will be. Personally I knew almost nothing about the story when I began the novel a week-and-a-half ago (I had seen it praised by Gareth L. Powell on Twitter and, honestly, that was good enough for me). I read the first hundred pages or so aboard the train en route to Mancunicon and quickly finished it over the following few days.

This is a very strong novel which consistently surprises the reader despite what, in retrospect, seems to be the inevitability of the story’s trajectory. The protagonist is Renata Ghali, or simply Ren, is a fabrication engineer and one of the leaders of a human colony on an alien planet. Twenty years ago she followed “Pathfinder” Suh-Mi – part scientist, part messiah – to the foot of an alien structure known to the settlers as “God’s City”. Since then Shu-Mi has resided in the city alone while the colonists wait for her return and Ren struggles with the difficult, debilitating truths of life on this otherwise desolate world.

Newman carefully paces Planetfall and builds the novel around a handful of genuine game-changing moments (the first of which is the appearance of a stranger who bears a striking resemblance to Shu-mi despite being far too young to have been part of the initial landing). Such reveals are convincing, with the reader never feeling cheated or mislead. What’s more, they build on one another in organic fashion. The novel is thus a masterclass in using little details to prefigure big developments. It is delicately done – typically arising from Newman’s logical, lyrical worldbuilding – and for the most part it is not apparent until after the event. In that regard, Planetfall is a novel I am already looking forward to rereading.

Indeed, as much as a reread offers the chance to trace Newman’s careful use of foreshadowing, it also offers an opportunity to spend more time with Plenetfall’s complex and realistically rendered protagonist. For it is Ren’s perspective, informed by suspicion and loneliness (and there are good reasons for both of those), which grounds this otherworldly novel. She refers to her own story as a “mosaic” and it is one assembled not just from secrets dating back to the colony’s foundation but from fragments of a heart broken multiple times over. Her narrowly focused first person narration further allows Newman to conceal and manipulate in satisfying fashion.

Some observations:

  • Newman employs something akin to social media throughout the novel but does so in a laudably unobtrusive fashion. Despite the tech underpinning it, it is nothing special; it is simply part of the characters’ lives and how they communicate.
  • Planetfall is, in many ways, like Prometheus done right.
  • The novel is as much an indictment of organised religion as it is an endorsement of faith.
  • If you enjoyed Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation you are likely to find things you will enjoy in Planetfall.
  • This might be the first great novel about 3D printing.
  • Go read it.

___

Other posts you may find of interest:

The supreme stylist plucks at the strings of his own oeuvre

Here is a review I wrote for the Irish Examiner a few months ago…

Blue.pngThe Blue Guitar
John Banville
Viking; €19.99
Review: Val Nolan

John Banville returns to the art world in the quietly absorbing referential puzzle box which is his first novel in three years. The story may be slight but then one reads Banville for the prose and not the plot: Oliver Otway Orme – “O O O. An absurdity” – is a professional painter and an amateur thief. He “steals” the wife of a friend, is discovered, retreats to various shabby boltholes to pen an address to an “inexistent confessor”, and eventually submits to the messy fallout of his affair.

In Banville’s hands, this simple tale becomes a darkly comic vehicle for digressive colour: Orme tell us the history of “a few hundred acres of passable land”, of “a fatal accident I witnessed as a young man” (in Paris, naturally), and on and on, while merely glossing over the specifics of his infidelity. “There must,” he says, “surely be something or somewhere I don’t want to get to, hence all these seemingly innocent meanderings down dusty by-roads”. Of course, each incident is weighed heavily with meaning but then the structure of The Blue Guitar is strong enough to bear it all.

Strong enough too to carry the magpieish aspect of Banville’s own intellect. This is after all a novel which takes its title from a Wallace Stevens poem while opening by simultaneously invoking a minor Greek deity of theft and echoing one of literature’s most famous opening lines – “Call me Autolycus,” Orme wryly says by way of introduction – and thus the book announces its referential nature from the get-go. Later Orme adds that “a large part of the pleasure of stealing derives from the possibility of being caught” and, for the reader as well, there is considerable enjoyment to be found in catching the novel’s endless allusions.

References to art and literature predominate, yet, more often than not, the most overt are to texts of a fantastical nature. These include Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and even (via “Omnium”, that “fundamental substance of the universe”) Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. Further call-backs conjure Banville’s own back-catalogue and fans of the author will recognize, for instance, the name Vandeleur from The Untouchable (1997) and the character of Adam Godly from The Infinities (2009).

Banville’s light touch in this regard offers a reflective and nostalgic backwards glance which aligns with the depiction of Orme himself. In that regard, character, text and, yes, even author blur together in satisfying fashion (with even the protagonist’s own sister thinking that he is a writer and not a painter). From a certain angle it is as though Banville is conducting a self-interrogation of sorts. One wonders, is he actually talking about a character named Orme… or me, meaning the writer himself?

For cloaked in Orme’s asides about art are insights equally applicable to the craft and practice of writing. “Everyone thinks it must be easy” if “you have some skill and master a few basic rules,” Banville-as-Orme says. He seems to be discussing not just writing in general but speaking to the authors of beautifully wrought but unimaginative and destined-to-be-forgotten literary writing in particular. Because “technique you can acquire, technique you can learn, with time and effort, but what about the rest of it, the bit that really counts”? Indeed, on occasion he seems to go for the jugular of misery fiction specifically: “I’m tired of brooding,” he says, “it availeth naught”.

By contrast, the pre-eminent stylist of his generation leavens the “new-old world” of The Blue Guitar with ideas more at home in speculative writing (and one should not be surprised given that he is also the author of some of the most notable European science novels, among them Doctor Copernicus, 1976, and Kepler, 1982). A kind of vague apocalypticism thus pervades the backdrop of this book. Eerie airships ply the skies between “spectacular showers of meteorites”. Meanwhile conversations are peppered with offhand remarks about “nasty new germs coming from outer space” and solar storms which show “no sign of abating”.

Moreover, clues sprinkled throughout indicate that Banville has set The Blue Guitar in the same physics-wise world as The Infinities. It is the seminal work of that novel’s patriarch, Godly’s “famous Brahma Postulate”, which has led to “the new science” and its acknowledgement of “intersecting universes”. All very intriguing, though Banville never allows it to overshadow the ordinary. He deploys it sparingly as the basis of hallucinatory moments of insight whereby Orme seems to glimpse the possibilities of other lives in mirrors and reflections.

Beyond that, however, the “technological wizardry” said to have changed the world has not had much impact on the dishevelment of the novel’s resolutely old-fashioned cast. Everyone here has a glass eye or a “Merovingian mother”. Everyone exudes a “lonely hauteur” within the “charmed if sombre realm of the half-mad”. It feels, if anything, like the rural 1980s, and it is in the dissonance between that threadbare ambiance and talk of “Godly particles” that the peculiar flavour of The Blue Guitar – the unmistakable Banvillianism of the novel – is at its most apparent.

That Orme inhabits the headspace of so many Banville protagonists before him – the outsider, the thief, the autobiographer – only reinforces this effect. As a narrator he is not strictly reliable and admits to changing people’s names for his own amusement, yet he is all too aware that “when I’m gone there will be no one here to register the world in just the way I do”. Again Orme might well be speaking for his creator, a distinctive talent capable of finding meaning in the most banal of images: a cup of undrunk tea; the fogged-up windows of a car; an artist’s dispassionate gaze.

Dr. Val Nolan lectures on Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University.

  • This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner on 19 September 2015, Weekend, pp.34-35.

 ___

Other posts which may be of interest:

Short sharp shocks from nasty little haunted house tale

Slade House

David Mitchell
Spectre; £12.99
Review: Val Nolan

David Mitchell is, in many ways, like the initial protagonist of his latest spooky offering: an immense imagination in a world where mould-breakers and genre-benders are too often told that “you have to act normal. Can you do that, please?”. Thankfully, however, Mitchell seldom limits himself to the normality of realism alone. It is in fact his great strength as a novelist that he so readily marries masterful prose to big ideas such as the sentient satellite of Ghostwritten (1999), the nested narratives of Cloud Atlas (2004), or the vast battle between good and evil which provides the backdrop to The Bone Clocks (2014).

In Slade House, set within the world of that latter novel, one finds Mitchell very much at play. Here he gives us a grand old home “that only blurs into existence one night every nine years”, a building “like a board game designed by M.C. Escher on a bender and Stephen King in a fever”. It is a classic haunted house inhabited by Norah and Jonah Grayer, sibling “soul vampires” who prey on lonely, isolated people.

The author’s signature technique of constructing longer works from interlinked stories here results in five novellas set across forty years. As they progress, we meet a young boy in the 1970s, a racist detective in the late 1980s, a 90s college student participating in a paranormal field trip, her reporter sister searching her out a decade later, and, finally, the clever, cruel Norah Grayer of the present day.

In a microcosm of how Slade House itself fits into what Mitchell calls his “Übernovel” – the interconnected characters and motifs from across his published writing – past characters blur into each subsequent story as the Grayer’s victims pass messages from one generation to the next. In this way they themselves become the true phantoms of this inside-out ghost story, for Norah and Jonah, despite their power, are ultimately mortal and in many ways are the ones who are really being haunted here.

While the bickering rivalry of the Grayers showcases the author’s skill at creating well-defined characters, the writing here is, on the whole, a little less thrillingly sharp than in The Bone Clocks. But, then again, that is appropriate as Slade House is dessert to that novel’s rich, multi-course meal and is unashamedly a work of genre drawing on horror and fantasy in equal measure. Those who appreciate “something a bit like The Da Vinci Code” will relish talk of “atemporals”, “psychosoterica”, “reality bubbles”, and so on (indeed, it is in these latter stretches that the novel’s relationship to The Bone Clocks is most clearly spelled out) though a straight literary audience may find such occult bric-à-brac to be more challenging. On the other hand, there is still a considerable amount for such readers to enjoy in Mitchell’s evocative and endlessly inventive imagery.

That said, to draw too firm a line between the speculative and literary facets of Mitchell’s work is to do a disservice to one of the great contemporary novelists in these islands. For though his fiction is frequently structured around partitions and section breaks, his real strength lies in his willingness to bring together literary style with the endless possibilities of genre writing. It is an aspect of his work which the brief, often quite nasty Slade House provides a frighteningly effective example of.

___

Other posts you may enjoy:

%d bloggers like this: