Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Midwinter 2013. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.
“The more I thought about it, the more I realised that some stories are so daft it makes no difference where you start telling them. You might as well start at the end as at the beginning because one part is as from making sense as the next.”
By all accounts, JJ O’Malley is a somewhat unusual young man. Adopted from a Romanian orphanage by an old Irish bachelor, and taken back to County Mayo, Ireland, JJ is raised there, and grows up to show a prodigious intellect. But in some respects, JJ is too smart for his own good, and his mind seems to eat at itself, spinning endlessly through impossible questions and conjectures, occasionally driving him to unusual behaviour. So when Ireland announces its participation in the Somnos Project, a European Union penal experiment in which criminals can serve their sentences in a deep coma, JJ volunteers to serve as the control patient. The unusual experiment draws attention from around the world and overnight JJ and his fellow prisoners become celebrities almost in the manner of reality television.
JJ spends the novel in his artificially induced coma, and his story is told to us by his father, his girlfriend, a former teacher, a family friend, and his member of parliament, who was responsible for Ireland’s participation in the experiment. Their different relationships to JJ build on one another to slowly reveal different aspects of his character and his past. Each voice is distinct and carefully realized, reflecting the age, gender and class of the speaker. Coma-bound, JJ does not speak for himself, but only in their memories. In a way, the reader becomes the fascinated public of the novel, eager for more information about the celebrity, but unable to access him directly.
The voices of JJ’s family and friends are counterpointed by frequent footnotes, which are sometimes only tangentially related to the point in the story at which they are attached. The language of the footnotes diverges sharply, taking a high academic tone in contrast to the more colloquial monologues of JJ’s loved ones. Some provide supplemental information about Irish history and geography, while others philosophize about the cultural and ethical implications of the Somnos Project. At times however, the academese was so exaggerated, that I was put in mind of the Sokal Hoax. Many of these footnotes are long and sprawling, extending across as much as five pages, and making it difficult to return to the flow of the narrative. I experimented with reading each footnote as it arose, and with reading all of the footnotes at the end of a chapter, but was unable arrive at a satisfying method for getting through them.
Despite the intriguing science fiction premise, I would hesitate to classify the book as such. The Somnos Project is, in some ways, almost incidental to JJ’s story, which is quite compelling even before he becomes involved with the penal experiment. It is a story of politics, psychology, metaphysics and family that defies easy classification.