Irish author Mike McCormack’s dark, atmospheric writings have made him a sensation in his home country. His notoriety on this side of the pond — outside of the occasional nod from the East Coast literary cognoscenti — is still slight. This Soho Press paperback publication of McCormack’s 2006 novel, NOTES FROM A COMA, might change that, if for no other reason than its inclusion of a slightly science-fictional element.
When his small dairy farm is forced out of business, Irish farmer Anthony O’Malley uses what money he has to adopt a male baby from a Romanian orphanage and begin a new life. He names the boy John Joe, but everyone calls him JJ.
As the years pass in his hometown of Louisburgh, JJ grows to become a young man and excels in school, especially subjects like philosophy and literature. Although always considered a member of the community, JJ struggles with feelings of being an outsider and acts out his insecurities in long-winded arguments with his friends about existence and being that he himself calls “mindrots.”
Then a personal tragedy occurs that tosses JJ down a dark hole of depression. Just as it seems as though he might return to his former self, he learns about an experimental program called the Somnos Project, which seeks volunteers to be placed into a deep coma and studied as an option in the European Union penal system. Although he has no criminal record, JJ volunteers and is transported to the project center on a prison ship anchored off the coast of Killary Harbor.
He and the other subjects are put to sleep and hooked up to monitoring devices that feed their brainwaves and dreams over the Internet. It isn’t long before the general public discovers how to log in to the Somnos Project, and JJ and his comatose cohorts become global celebrities. It’s an unanticipated side effect that has the project coordinators — and all of JJ’s family and loved-ones — deeply concerned.
McCormick traces JJ’s development and the events of the novel through alternating first-person monologue chapters told by JJ’s father, a local neighbor, one of JJ’s teachers, JJ’s girlfriend and the Somnos Project director. Here, the author displays the striking contrasts between life in a small Irish countryside and the lofty, complicated and high-tech ambitions of the world outside of Louisburgh. This is one of the most memorable characteristics of this work.
But additional events and commentary take place literarily underneath these chapters in long footnotes from an unnamed project historian. These footnotes are often set off by a seemingly unrelated comment and go on beneath several pages. While these informative and often ironic notes prove indispensable to the novel, the technique is nonetheless unusual and takes some getting used to.
It proves more than worth the effort because of the way McCormack comments through his various characters on such subjects as the clash of science and long-held traditions, the ethics of incarceration, and perhaps most notably on global communication and the odd resulting cases of instant celebrity.
It’s as though the writer foresaw the popularity of viral videos, as well as the proliferation of “reality” TV making stars out of the most unlikely subjects. The Somnos Project participants are suddenly worldwide celebrities, with their brainwaves observed daily by millions and their off-hand comments (such as JJ’s reason for taking part: “I want to take a rest from myself”) worn on T-shirts and flashed on bumper stickers. They become examples of the many that to this day are “famous for being famous.”
That’s quite a lot from a slim novel of just under 200 pages. Yet it underscores how unique and noteworthy this unusual novel truly is — and why McCormack undeniably deserves a wider audience on this side of the globe. —Alan Cranis