Core selves go missing in high-tech celeb world

Fri, Jan 15, 2010, 00:00

A disgracefully neglected writer gets to the heart of our confusions in a surreal and dazzling tale

THE GREATEST Irish novel of the decade just ended was Galway-based Mike McCormack’s Notes From a Coma(Jonathan Cape, 2005), a strange and strangely contemporary story, exquisitely written and buttressed with a structural irony that renders its implausibility almost unnoticeable.

Notes From a Comais the story of John Joe (“JJ”) O’Malley, a Romanian orphan adopted by a west of Ireland bachelor farmer, who becomes one of five male volunteers in an experiment aimed at replacing prison with unconsciousness. Instead of being jailed, offenders are put into a coma for specified periods. The five are to remain in a publicly- monitored coma for three months on a ship called Somnosanchored in Killary Harbour. Four are real convicts, but JJ is “innocent”: he merely wants to give his mind a rest from his mind for a while. He is the control subject, whose innocence enables him to be the source of comparison for those who have been deemed guilty.

It is a surreal tale, which in its excursion into the outer fringes of sci-fi fantasy somehow manages to approach an untouchable dimension of the truth about the world we live in. It is satirical and quietly scarifying, salutary and sensationalist, improbable and yet deeply moving. Thus, it gets close to the everyday quality of what we call “the news”.

The story is told in a way that matches its superficial oddness, with two parallel texts, one in the form of “footnotes” – actually the fractured authorial narrative, a kind of Big Brother commentary that lurches from bland news delivery to a familiar almost inscrutable techno-speak – the other comprising the voices of the five central characters – JJ’s adoptive father, girlfriend, teacher, neighbour and local TD – who advance the story in relays.

The death of JJ’s closest friend has led to him losing his appetite for life. Convinced that he has “argued” his friend to death, he embarks on a journey of atonement for something nobody thinks him guilty of.

Naturally, the comas are available online. As the story unfolds, JJ becomes a national icon, his suspended mind offering a focal point at which “the nation’s consciousness knows itself and knows itself knowing itself . . .” Notes From a Comais a dazzling book disgracefully overlooked when the literary prizes were handed out at the time of its publication, and which now appears, even more disgracefully, to be out of print.

In its fragmented approach to narrative, McCormack’s masterpiece captures, almost between its words, the refraction of identity in a postmodern culture. In its flirtation with what for the moment seems implausible, it acquires an elevated quality of realism.

The story of JJ O’Malley may today seem fanciful, but it belongs, unmistakably, to the everyday texture of this, the most unpredictable, celebrity-fixated, vengeful, unreasonable, technology-dependent, voyeuristic, parasitic and potentially dangerous century in the history of the human species.

Notes From a Comatraces the condition of mankind taking leave of its senses: “Our essential selves now move a couple of paces ahead of us, opening doors and switching on lights, tripping intruder alarms, motion sensors and biometric systems . . . our souls clearing a path through the technosphere for the trailing golem of ourselves. This is how we’ve become attenuated, how the borders of our identities are drawn out, vitiating our core selves; this is how we’ve found ourselves beside ourselves. One day we might come completely unhinged. Somewhere beyond arm’s length our soul will turn round and wave goodbye to us before moving off and pulling the door behind it, leaving us here under the fluorescent lights, with nothing to lean on save these vigilant machines with their unerring testimonies. It will have turned its back on us, with all our works and empty promises. Cored out in this fashion, ontologies and IDs reassigned, someone or something else will come to stand in our place . . .”

I think of this awesome book every time I pick up a newspaper and read the superficial facts of “stories” that have obviously but unexceptionally become detached from their human subjects. Confronted with the dizzying gap between our capacity to communicate and our ability to say anything meaningful, I think of JJ O’Malley and wonder how, in spite of wall-to-wall twittering, we can know the truth about anyone or anything.

Last weekend, though, it struck me that the main impediment between Mike McCormack and literary immortality in the eyes of a more conscious posterity is the likelihood that, as he himself implies, reality is almost certain soon to render his imagined landscapes commonplace and banal. As I queued up for a security check at Heathrow, it occurred to me that the time may soon arrive when it will be impossible for human beings to board an aeroplane without firstly agreeing to be rendered unconscious – this being the only way of guaranteeing that one of their number will not try to obliterate the others because of his or her interpretation of a backstory that nobody else will ever be able to comprehend.