Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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JJ O’Malley volunteers to be put in a coma for three months, a trial run for a procedure to be used in the future on
prisoners. The test comas are carried live, on-line, and O’Malley becomes an instant celebrity in absurd but
predictable ways, nodding toward Warhol—the prescience and social critique. O’Malley, however, isn’t
looking for fame, but, rather, to silence the constant babble in his brain. His motivation is to tune out. In his
application essay (it is a competitive process), O’Malley writes, “I want to take my mind off my mind for a
This book, told through the voices of those who knew or dealt with O’Malley—teachers, a girlfriend, old friends, scientists and officials involved in the project—includes this rapt admiration on how O’Malley distinguished himself in the selection process: “You can imagine after so many screeds of cliché and platitude how sudden and direct this was. It spoke to the heart of the issue and unlike the other scripts it spoke clearly and directly. It cut through all the dross and verbiage and spoke more in twelve words than the rest did in two hundred words or two hundred pages. The immediate impression it gave was of a clear mind which was direct, highly intelligent and with a merciful ability to spare words....”
Indeed, this intelligence is what tortures O’Malley: ceaseless, turning over and over, questioning every angle. Plus there is his past (he’s an orphan), his best friend’s death by drinking, and his role in that death. He would just like a chance to still his ever-spinning brain, to switch off his mind for a little while. He wants “A rest . . . To go to sleep for a few months....” Thus the experiment, the Somnos Project, with its baroque “transparency,” Internet feed and Web site full of files, its volunteers famous for being famous, for having their heartbeats available in digital format for public download. “Someone had suggested they might wear a one-piece uniform in the manner of NASA astronauts,” but that idea got vetoed.
If O’Malley’s mind shuts down (which it ostensibly does), Somnos itself, as a collective project, picks up the slack, studding the text with footnotes turning over the social and theological ramifications of the experiment, musing about God’s relation to neuronal activity and the fact that “Three weeks into the project, Nielsen/NetRatings confirmed that ‘coma’ overtook ‘sex’ as the entry of choice in the nation’s Web search engines.”
Such facts, like the voices testifying about O’Malley, merely circle around the issues. There is an effect of white noise to the novel itself: a transmission of tangential whispers but no core, mirroring, one imagines, the feel inside O’Malley’s head, pre-coma. In the end, too many voices, each with a kind of claustrophobic effect, as if spoken in the chamber of some kind of brain-scanning device. If there is social critique here, it gets drowned out by all the thinking, just as plot and scene and character get swallowed by these ceaseless and irritating ideas, this buzz and roar, the mind, making notes, refusing to shut up and still and say one clear thing—lacking the “merciful ability to spare words.”
Official Soho Press Web Site