Passage
Connie Willis

Morality: C+
Writing: A+

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” So Hamlet says as he and Horatio face the ghost of Hamlet’s father. This line becomes the key phrase in Connie Willis’ incredible book Passage, which deals with multiple metaphysical themes in a manner both fascinating and simple. Death. Memory. Metaphor. These and many more provide the subject matter of the book, woven together into a gripping story.

The plot concerns two scientists who are studying near-death experiences in an attempt to discover their physical components and purpose. Dr. Joanna Lander and Dr. Richard Wright don’t buy the spiritualism of many NDE investigators — they’re out to find the physical facts. When Richard discovers a means to create artificial NDEs in a laboratory setting and map the brain’s activity during them, he and Joanna think they are near a breakthrough. So if the NDE is a purely physical phenomenon, why does it seem so real — and so terrifying? As this story about near-death experiences unfolds, we meet other characters who are facing death first-hand — a young girl with a terminal heart condition, a man suffering from Alzheimer’s, an elderly man in a coma, a young woman mourning the death of her fiancĂ©.

The plot has thriller elements (you may be kept up at night, and not just while reading — I was), but the thrills aren’t cheap. The volume of Willis’ research in creating this novel is obviously phenomenal. She shows herself an expert on everything from disaster history to modern Hollywood films to the last words of famous persons. The book is imbued with literary references, which serve to deepen its meaning and emphasize its impact. Its theme of metaphor multiplies its meanings as metaphors surface throughout the plot and the setting. Willis is also expert at characterization, which she develops mostly through dialogue and an almost stream-of-consciousness perspective narrative style. She has a zany sense of humor which is also character-based and wonderfully charming. The writing is simple and quick to read, but very effective and psychologically complex. The book is gripping, fascinating, surprising, frightening, moving, all at once.

As with Willis’ Doomsday Book, I’m once again baffled when it comes to a moral grade for this book. The book is about death, and Willis does not give a particularly Christian view of the meaning of death, or life after death. Christians are mostly lumped together with the nutty spiritualists that Richard and Joanna so detest, although one Christian woman’s faith is portrayed in a positive light. The vision offered of life beyond the grave is not one of hell, purgatory, or heaven, per se (although with the metaphor-based complexity, you never know). Willis strikes me as a consciously non-religious writer who nevertheless realizes that the Truth is important. She doesn’t pretend that death isn’t terrifying; she sees the horror in it, squarely faces the human fear of death and doesn’t pretend it isn’t valid. She recognizes that death is terribly significant — what it means, what follows it are absolutely central. What happens to the human person after death is important, and what you do with your life is important. Even though she doesn’t come to any conclusions about the answers, she knows that the questions are significant, and she doesn’t downplay any of them. I really respect that.

And again, as in Doomsday Book, self-sacrifice becomes a central theme. But unlike Doomsday Book, here, the self-sacrifice produces real, true hope and happiness, making for a much less depressing ending. It seems the one answer Willis offers in her book is this — giving oneself completely, utterly, for the sake of others, is the real meaning and purpose behind life. Here Willis lands upon a central belief of Christianity. And I think she is aware of this, in spite of her portrayal of most Christians as nutcases. Her book ends with a quote from C. S. Lewis: “Guesses, of course, only guesses. If they are not true, something better will be.”

Content warning: The book contains occasional bad language; however, aside from this, its subject matter and frightening intensity clearly label it an adults-only novel.

Posted by Sasha | May 25, 2005

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