A wandering plot is usually a problem in a novel, but it oddly works in Alex Garland’s The Coma. In the most basic sense, a man is severely beaten by a group of thugs in the London Tube. Despite being beaten unconscious, the voice of the main character continues to speak. He is aware that he is horribly injured and has gone to the hospital, but something isn’t quite right. Through a series of strange events, he realizes he is not awake and is indeed in a coma.
Thus begins an odd journey of attempting to find a way to wake himself up. It’s through this journey that Garland contends the human mind is a strange landscape where imagination fuses with reality and self discovery is easier said than done. Essentially, The Coma is an existential adventure. Garland creates a beautiful open-ended allegory that asks us to consider what truly defines reality and what constitutes the self. There is no clear-cut end to the story, just as there is no such thing as a clear-cut definition of existence.
Garland’s simplistic approach to presenting a rather complicated topic is what makes this little novel a pleasure to read. Even with a meandering storyline that isn’t always anchored to a strong foundation, there is an indescribable “pull” to keep turning the pages. Admittedly, the ending is a bit frustrating, but it’s also absolutely perfect. Reality is all about perception – what is gibberish for one, makes perfect sense to another.
The Coma is an interesting and surprisingly fast read. I’d recommend it for anyone who enjoys a nice little fictional jaunt into philosophical contemplation.
Recently, someone asked me what I was planning to do during a visit London this summer. I laughed and said, “Plan? There is no plan! I’m going to wander.” The woman looked at me like she wanted to commit me to a mental institution. It’s not the first time I’ve been on the receiving end of a “you’re nuts” look, (and it won’t be the last). I wander a lot. Just about everything I do involves at least a little detour off the well-trod path. If that makes me weird, then so be it.
Wandering doesn’t mean there’s a lack of focus. It’s a form of learning that inspires creativity in multiple realms. This is no secret as countless individuals from Da Vinci to Edison have proven it over and over again. They had the ability to see the world without limitation and we laude them for it to this day. Yet, there remains a stigma over the art of wandering. It’s considered eccentric. Or crazy.
One writer in particular touted the virtues of wandering and I often look to him as a reminder that life is much too big for a narrow view. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was unquestionably a pretty serious and intelligent guy as he dabbled in various fields of study from politics, the law, science, art, and literature. He even played with the study of color. Some would call him indecisive, but Goethe was simply wandering. He had the will to be curious of more than one calling and he gave himself the freedom to explore. In four small lines, he offers inspiration to do the same:
Keep not standing,
fixed and rooted
Funny how no one ever wanted to put him in the nut house.
Sometimes it feels like the whole point of life is to get lost just so I can find my way back. Wandering is essentially curiosity without boundaries – there’s no endpoint or timeframe. It’s just the moment and me having an intimate conversation. Whether it be down the streets of an unfamiliar city, between the pages of a random book by an unknown author, or among the words of a story I’m writing there is always something to discover. That something would be bypassed if I only followed the perfectly drawn lines of a plan. There is magic out there, but it purposely hides in the most unexpected places. And it can only be found through the act of wandering.
Perhaps it is easier to travel with a roadmap, but where is the spirit of living when every step is carefully choreographed? Failure to wander is the same as standing still. The scenery never changes and new possibilities die before they can live. Given the choice to wander or stagnate, I’m with Goethe.
At first glance, Everything Matters by Ron Currie, Jr. centers around the impending doom of the world and the one man who knows exactly when it’s going to happen. An unidentified voice speaks to him from the time he is a zygote to the final moments of his life. While this voice is a bit unnerving, it serves as a perfect metaphor for what all of us know but never fully grab onto because it’s just too simple - everything truly does matter regardless of the inevitable end we all face.
As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this is not necessarily a story about the end of the world, but rather the story of a man who discovers the true meaning of love in all it’s various forms. While it sounds a tad prosaic, Currie has a wholly original way of telling a story that has been told a million times before. Rather than have complete focus on the doomsday plot, he hones in on the human aspect and creates characters that are both unique and relatable. The end of the world looks quite different from the perspectives of a proud father, an insecure and overly worried mother, a brain damaged brother, and the main character himself who is uncommonly intelligent (thanks in large part to the voice in his head) yet governed almost entirely by his fears of attachment and emotion. Usually, I am not a fan of novels where the point of view switches from one person to another, but Currie does it seamlessly. To my surprise, I was actually curious to know what each character was thinking as the story progressed. Through each person’s experience, Currie shows that it’s the choices we make that determine how love will exist in our lives, if we allow it to exist at all.
Perhaps the most jarring aspects of the novel lie in the second half in that Currie makes some bold choices in plot development. The story sometimes takes ludicrous turns that have no seeming purpose. However, this tactic works as a reminder that people do some crazy things when placed in extraordinary circumstances, whether it be the end of the world or otherwise. In particular, we will do almost anything to cheat death. It’s in this idea that Currie makes his strongest point. Ultimately, we all face an end even without global cataclysm. Its just a question of when. This is not something to fear or dodge as it is inescapable. What isn’t set in stone is how we choose to spend the time we have between the beginning and the final moment. To that end, everything we do matters. The real fear should be placed on knowing whether we made each day count. Currie chooses to convey this message through a powerful ending that defies common logic. To reveal it would be nothing short of blasphemy. However, I implore anyone who reads it to remember the world is full of possibilities.
Everything Matters will mean different things to different people, which is what makes it a remarkable read. Personally, I felt something shift in me when I read the last word on the last page. It’s a shift that changed my outlook on everything for the better.
Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago is one strange, yet enlightening literary journey into the concept of mortality. Initially, the prose is overwhelming in that sentences often run the length of an entire page, paragraphs are almost non-existent and grammar rules are largely accepted as suggestions rather than canon. This unorthodox style could be construed as a writer thumbing his nose at the establishment, but lurking beneath every English teacher’s nightmare is the true motive of creating a realistic sense of chaos.
Saramago creates a scenario where for a period of seven months, no one dies. An unnamed omniscient narrator, who is never identified, explains both the immediate and far reaching consequences of immortality. At first people rejoice at the idea that they will live forever, but then there’s the realization that aging, disease, and injury are still part of the human experience. Suddenly death doesn’t seem like such a bad deal, especially for a terminally ill or severely injured person who essentially stuck with pain they know will never go away. An ever-growing population strains governments and economies to the brink of collapse, while invalids push suffering to a whole new level of despair. Humanity descends into a tailspin of confusion that only grows worse with each passing day.
Meanwhile, Death is watching from her lair. She is not evil or playing some cruel joke, but rather she is a sympathetic character who happens to carry a scythe. Bestowing death upon humans is something she takes very seriously, but the task is not something that gives her pleasure. It is merely a necessary part of life that must occur. The interruption in her “services” has to do with her curiosity of human behavior and her own philosophical quandaries.
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Archimedes once said “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” While this statement has an admirable motivational sentiment, I tend to consider this lever-bearing scientist’s idea with a different perspective. It’s not the world that’s meant to be moved, it’s us.
Movement is often judged by concrete fact and quantified with statistics crunched by a calculator. Whether it be undeniable evidence that someone moved from one end of the room to the other or an astronomer’s chart tracking the orbit of the earth over the last year, we like to be able to step back and say to ourselves “Yup, I can see it.”
Granted there’s nothing wrong with wanting that proof, but it only addresses one dimension of movement. For some it’s just easier to pay attention to what’s happening on the outside and to prescribe to a norm that always has the “right” answer. Unfortunately, that means forsaking the movement that can occur inside of us, where it cannot be seen.
Movement is more than just the act of doing. It’s not about making sure there is a witness or recording hard data. Real movement involves the ability to bend willingly to fate and follow its whimsy. This is done not out of submission, but rather out of curiosity and awareness. Don’t we always end up somewhere for a reason or meet someone for a specific purpose? It’s never apparent until after the fact, but we are always moved by the experience. More often than not, powerful moments are ignored because they can’t be plotted on a graph or validated by some scientific principle. Sadly, this leads to many missed opportunities.
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