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‘Is she alive? Is she dead?’ Representations of chronic disorders of consciousness in Douglas Coupland's Girlfriend in a Coma

Abstract

Depictions of coma have come to dominate literary and filmic texts over the last half century, a phenomenon coinciding with advancements in medical technology that have led to remarkable increases in the survival rates of patients with chronic disorders of consciousness. Authors of coma fiction are preoccupied with the imagined subjective experience of coma, often creating complex, dream-like worlds from which the protagonist must escape if survival is to be achieved. However, such representations appear to conflict with medical case studies and patient narratives that reveal that most often survivors of coma have no recollection of the coma itself. Providing a close reading of Douglas Coupland's Girlfriend in a Coma (1998) against the context of medical literature and diagnoses, this article examines how the coma patient is represented, often depicting the realities of a prolonged vegetative state, in contrast with other popular representations of coma. It explores how the author develops a work of ‘fantastic’ fiction (a genre defined by the structuralist critic Tzvetan Todorov), using the condition of coma as a metaphor for a postmodern existential crisis, while simultaneously employing mimetic techniques that raise important medical, ethical and philosophical questions surrounding the ontological status of the comatose patient. It is argued that coma fiction, even in its misrepresentation of the condition, can help us to engage with and interrogate how we think about chronic disorders of consciousness, thereby providing a valuable insight into our attitudes towards illness and mortality.

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