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.


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‘Experiment or Die’: an Interview with Mike McCormack

Mike McCormackJust a quick update to say that ‘Experiment or Die’, my interview with Irish novelist Mike McCormack has just been published in Canada’s ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature.

Mike McCormack is the author of Getting it in the Head (1996), a book of stories awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and voted a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He has also published two novels, Crowe’s Requiem (1998) and Notes From a Coma (2005). The latter was short-listed for The Sunday Independent/Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year award, hailed by The Irish Times as “the greatest Irish novel of the decade just ended”, and deemed by this author in the Irish Examiner to be “the only interesting Irish novel of the 21st Century”. His new collection of stories, Forensic Songs, has recently been published.

In this interview, McCormack discusses the influences and experiences which led him to writing, the ubiquity of technology and the fragility of identity in 21st century Ireland (particularly with regard to its depiction in Notes From a Coma), along with the vital, experimental ethos which he believes contemporary Irish fiction must reclaim if it is to maintain relevance in this globalized age.

As ever, anyone with institutional access to a decent university library ought to be able to access the article online via their electronic resources, though if you’re having trouble with that or are beyond the paywalls, just let me know and I’ll send you on the PDF. Knowledge should be free, of course, but society and economics aren’t exactly there yet.


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Plugging into the Future

A recent review of mine from the Irish ExaminerMike McCormack’s new story collection Forensic Songs.

"Forensic Songs"Forensic Songs

Mike McCormack

Lilliput; £12

Review: Val Nolan

While writers such as Mary Costello and Kevin Barry have lately been rejuvenating traditional themes and motifs in short form fiction, Mayo-man Mike McCormack has been busy expanding the frontiers of Irish writing into the future. Building on his 1996 collection Getting it in the Head, as well his excellent 2005 novel Notes From a Coma, the twelve offerings here respond to a world enveloped by “a gathering chaos, something so deep and widespread it can only be resolved by divine intervention”.

In the case of many of these stories, said intercession takes the form of a literal “Deus ex Machina, the god from the machine; techne and logos finally brought together”. Or least brought together in theory for, in practice, the mismatches explored by McCormack savagely demolish the myth of progress through soulless development alone.

In the opening story, a wicked sending-up of the Irish tendency towards miserable autobiographies, two Gardaí fret over “the only man in this jurisdiction not to have written a childhood memoir”. It is one of several “gaps” in official records found in this collection, an unfeasible state of affairs in a Twenty-First century where everything is indexed, referenced, and tallied with existing accounts beneath skies crisscrossed by “planes, satellites, unmanned drones…”

Another standout, “There is a Game Over There”, baits a prisoner with a “turn-based, wholly intuitive” computer game focused on “the abstract realm of politics”, a work financed by “P. O’Neill”, the pseudonymous identity of the IRA spin-masters. The game is revolutionary because, like real life, it has “the possibility of infinite endings” and so lends itself to a story which questions the fluidity of identity – if not reality itself – in a digital age where the screen has more substance than the truth.

It is exactly this attitude which gives Forensic Songs its distinctive flavour. In it, a child attempts to harness the “complete profile” which TV says will someday make him a serial killer; a spurned politician fancies himself a deity for building “roads and bridges and bypasses”, restoring time “to the living”; two Men in Black, agents of “the New World”, appear on an Irish doorstep; meanwhile, set in Prague, the brief, almost Murakami-esque “From the City of Dolls” draws on the legacy of Karel Čapek (who coined the word “robot”) to query the ubiquity of technology in our lives and bodies.

“A beautiful woman stepped in from the cold, in out of the blue, sat down beside me and told me a story,” the story’s narrator says, learning that his new acquaintance has an electrical device in her chest, a “jumpstart” to counteract a cardiac condition. Along with the new science of “Prophet X”, the creation of a CEO with a Messiah Complex, the woman’s implant is one of many “redemption technologies” and “Christ machines” which McCormack’s characters struggle to align with pre-existing worldviews.

Indeed, the Ireland of Forensic Songs is like a computer system itself, the hardware of the old century yoked to the software, the mindset if you will, of the new. Run through with bleak humour, this collection hones McCormack’s previous depictions of small town, surreal Ireland into something unique and wholly needed. Stories which shatter the dangerously parochial conception of what contemporary Irish writing is, Forensic Songs is highly recommended.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 1st December 2012, p.16.


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