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Consciousness in the void


Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

Alex Garland
Faber and Faber
Price: £9.99
This is a strange, provocative little book that you can read in two hours but think about for days. It lacks a formal plot, the narrative is rooted in the ephemeral, and it progresses in a disembodied yet disturbingly compelling way.
If you were to look for a storyline, it's a bare-bones one about a man called Carl who works in some kind of forgettable job""the story suggests he is an editor in a publishing house. He is beaten unconscious on the subway by a couple of thugs while trying to save a young woman from being robbed.
Actually, that's just the introduction that sets the stage, as it were, for the real "plot", which is Carl's life when he wakes up in a hospital bed to find himself in a coma.
What happens next? Well, nothing much, really. Carl visits his friends, talks with his girlfriend, goes to a record shop of his youth where he listens to half-remembered songs, buys knick-knacks, befriends a cab driver who is actually a nurse in the hospital, hears snatches of odd conversations ...
Hovering as he does between being and nothingness, Carl's comatose life""of which, paradoxically, he is entirely conscious""is a surreal expression of his inarticulate hopes, half-expressed thoughts, and subconscious irritations and obsessions.
This is almost like "reading" a Salvador Dali painting, only the words do nothing to lessen the general sense of unease that pervades the text, accentuated by the starkly perceptive black-and-white illustrations by the author's father and political cartoonist,
The strangeness is highlighted by the dispassionate, almost scientific tone of the narrative as Carl's dream life moves in a seamless but unpredictable way through space and time.
"The understanding that I was sleeping made much greater sense of these relocations. Whereas previously I had mistaken them for blackouts, and felt unsure retrospectively how I might have moved from a bathtub to Anthony's front door, I now recognised them as familiar aspects of a dream life: that one moment you are here, and another you are there.
"Very familiar. I could estimate that I had spent perhaps a third of my life asleep, and a large proportion of that time must have been spent dreaming.
"So: I knew dream life. In fact, in a way, I was actually comfortable with it. Dream life, I realised, was only confusing when you were awake.
It was from the perspective of waking life that dream life seemed fractured and lacking consequence, lacking certainty that one thing led to another. But within dream life the world was generally coherent. Not exactly an unconfusing world""just no less confusing than any other."
So what keeps you reading this odd, desultory non-story? It's the familiar lexicon of the dream-world: the inexplicable, ordinary weirdness of it all. This is a dream world, encountered if not entirely understood, unfettered by but centred in the realities of daily life. Best of all, it is free of the philosophical; the matter-of-fact profundity is all the more effective for it.
At the start, there is a vaguely menacing tinge to the dream, the constant presence of death. But as progresses, Carl grows comfortable with his disjointed, subliminal life. For instance: "A couple of times, something weird happened.
For example, the bacon and toast took literally no time to cook, they just appeared. And the area of the kitchen was maybe two times narrower than its real-life counterpart, and with higher ceilings.
"But I didn't care.
"Because why should I? Strip down my waking life, and I'm a consciousness in a void. Strip down my dream life, and I'm a consciousness in a void.
"What difference?"
At the end of the book, several basic questions go unanswered. You still don't get to know what Carl does for a living, his full name, the country in which he lives. None of this matters, however.
The fascinating part of this slim volume of un-numbered pages and several half-page "chapters" is the intensely personal vocabulary of Carl's dream life. As he ruminates once he rises out his coma.
"Every dream that anyone ever had is theirs alone and they never managed to share it ... Our memories and our vocabularies aren't up to the job ... When you wake, you lose a narrative and you never get it back."
is a brief account of journey that all of us make into the other half-world of the mind. Junkies probably take a trip there more often than most.

First Published: Mon, October 11 2004. 00:00 IST