A sedation of the soul

Sat, May 14, 2005, 01:00

Fiction: Of the many memorable Irish fictional debuts of the past decade, few impressed more than Mike McCormack's 1996 short-story collection Getting it in the Head.

A darkly humorous study in west of Ireland gothic, the book introduced us to a cast of sharply individualised narrators, each prey to various forms of weird imaginings and deviant fantasies. McCormack brought an unnervingly idiosyncratic vision to bear on small-town conservatism and insularity. As the narrator of the title story puts it: "This was what you got for spending your life here in the west of Ireland, on the edge of the world - a thin imagination, a narrow mind that had huge chunks of the world falling down each side of it". Yet the stories also managed to capture the pathos of dysfunctional lives and the ways in which chronic loneliness can mutate into murderous obsession.

Crowe's Requiem (1998) further testified to McCormack's fascination with the darker vicissitudes of Irish life and his desire to explore them by moving beyond conventional realistic modes. In particular, his artful use of gothic fantasy to dramatise the strange tale of Crowe, a freakish young man who exists "outside of government and history", showed that fabulism could render the psychic and social stresses of contemporary Ireland at least as compellingly as realism.

But perhaps the most striking feature of McCormack's first two books is their preoccupation with the commodification of the human body in a consumerist, computerised society. The standout story in Getting it in the Head, for example, is a blackly comic meditation on self-alienation and postmodern celebrity in which a sculptor dismembers himself for the sake of his art. Crowe's Requiem recapitulates this theme of grotesque physicality through its exploration of the shadowy interface between the human, commercial and scientific realms. Driven by economic need, Crowe takes part in a medical experiment during which his heart is stopped momentarily, an experience which precipitates his eventual capitulation to a mysterious ageing disorder.

In Notes from a Coma McCormack not only extends his treatment of this corporeal thematic across a whole novel, he also makes it the vehicle for a sustained inquiry into the troubling implications of the interaction of advanced technology and corporate culture in a politically cynical age.

A cross between Nineteen Eighty-Four and the X Files, the novel charts the progress of JJ O'Malley, born in a Romanian orphanage and adopted by a bachelor farmer from Louisburgh, Co Mayo. Although JJ turns out to be a boy genius, his sense of being "cast out without love or grace" is a constant source of unhappiness. Plagued by "mindrot meditations" and shadowed by misfortune, he volunteers to be the control in a government project to test the use of deep coma on long-term prisoners. Along with four others, he is sedated in a high-security neurological unit from where his every brainwave is broadcast live to the worshipful gaze of "a generation anxious to move beyond the cowl and the candle".

Five narrators - his adoptive father, neighbour, lover, teacher and TD - take it in turn to give their account of JJ's journey from wretched orphan to cultural icon. But it is a sixth voice, audible in the lengthy footnotes that punctuate the text, which provides the most compelling commentary on JJ's plight. This Orwellian narrator conjures up an apocalyptic vision of a spiritually vacuous nation in thrall to the transformative power of technology.

Through this persona McCormack attacks multiple targets, from Ireland's absorption into a European superstate to reality TV; JJ's comatose condition being seen as "the ultimate refinement of the witless compliance of all those contestants who never once sought to subvert the terms of their confinement from within".

McCormack's deeper concern, however, is with the integrity of the self in a society where the control of human consciousness is within the power of governments and multinational corporations. Echoing the fictional concerns of Thomas Pynchon and J.G. Ballard, he imagines a desolate future in which "we have come to live in this deferral of ourselves, drifting away on a digital tide, a hail of ones and zeroes which sift down through the ether and resolve to a lattice of pixels on screens and printouts - our very own hauntology".

Like the best dystopian fiction, Notes from a Coma combines chillingly credible scenarios with acerbic political commentary. As an allegory of the future collapse of both self and state sovereignty, it offers a powerfully imagined critique of the corporatisation of the soul in an intrusively technological age. It also satirises the mediated culture of modern Ireland, where "the fact that we do not know what we are watching nor how to interpret what it is we are watching is now apparently no obstacle to our watching". Richly inventive and forcefully ironic, Notes from a Coma establishes McCormack as one of the most original and important voices in contemporary Irish fiction.

Liam Harte lectures in Irish and modern literature at the University of Manchester

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack. Jonathan Cape, 200pp. £10.99