You could fill a bookshelf with fictional work set in a character’s imagination during a life-or-death struggle. From Shane Jones’s Daniel Fights a Hurricane to Ian Edington and D’Israeli’s Kingdom of the Wicked, storytellers have seized on the opportunity to blend phantasmagorical imagery with psychological acuity, creating works that can resonate on multiple levels. There are others I could mention, but to reveal some of them would be to spoil a narrative twist. With Kevin Bigley’s debut novel Comaville, there’s little doubt as to where the novel’s protagonist is — it’s right there in the title.
As the novel begins, Josh Husk has just awakened in his childhood bedroom. The fact that Josh is 36 clues him in immediately to the fact that something is off — but the particular nature of that wrongness currently escapes him. He drives to a city that’s mostly Chicago but abounds with details from other places he’s visited, and soon encounters a childhood friend, Andy. The fact that Andy has been dead for decades is but one more odd detail in this strange existence — one where he works at a job in the Sears Tower populated by old friends, minor celebrities, cartoon characters, and stuffed animals.
Interspersed with the scenes of Josh grappling with his existence are scenes of his sister and parents standing watch over his comatose body. He’d been out bicycling when he was hit by a car; his sister Steph notes that “[i]t was disturbing to see a man usually so filled with ebullient joy being reduced to an unconscious mess.”
Bigley alternates coma chapters with hospital chapters, and the two settings have a dramatically different tenor. Josh’s immersion in his own past gradually gets bleaker and more horrific as his condition worsens, while the Husk family’s internal conflicts are far more measured. It’s a welcome balancing act: the “is this real or a delusion” story trope found in many a weird story can be a frustrating one, and by being open about the different levels of reality in the novel, Bigley avoids that pitfall.
While the balance gives this book its soul, its more kinetic aspects come from the hallucinatory sequences within Josh’s mind. That this pocket reality might break down comes as little surprise; the visceral manner in which it does remains manifestly unsettling. That a massive stuffed bear winds up displaying sociopathic tendencies is icing on this particular cake.
Bigley’s prose is at its best when it focuses on descriptions of the unreal and the degraded:
A maze of tents and makeshift forts had inimically positioned themselves just outside, forcing him to hurriedly wander through sinuous paths of flowing fabric, inside which the defeated faces of his friends, teachers, babysitters, and neighborhood clerks squinted. Their beady eyes leered at him from their frigid, frail forts.
Nostalgia, in this book, is a literal nightmare — and a potentially lethal one. Bigley accomplishes the difficult task of balancing the unreal and the mundane, and taking his characters to extraordinary circumstances in worlds both realistic and strange. It’s an impressive and ambitious debut.
by Kevin Bigley
CLASH Books; 224 p.