by Connie Willis
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Connie Willis explores death and near death experiences (NDEs) in Passage, a scientific procedural set in a Denver hospital. The novel opens with the appearance of Richard Wright, an experimental doctor who is looking at what happens to the brain as death approaches. The hospital he is working at, Mercy General, already has a couple of researchers in this area, Maurice Mandrake, a spiritualist who has published many popular books on NDEs, and Joanna Lander, a psychologist who feels that Mandrake is a self-aggrandizing charlatan.
Wright and Lander join forces in an attempt to perfect Wright's technique for inducing NDEs while Mandrake appears as the perfect foil to their research, in both his assertions that what they want to do can't be done and as an obstacle to their efficiency. For all that, Mandrake and his subjects are much more two-dimensional than the characters Willis chooses to focus on and give her sympathy to. Landers, Wright and the people they work with are all shown to have a variety of aspects to their lives. Vielle, an emergency room nurse, insists on trying to play Cupid to Landers and Wright, despite their protestations. Maisie, a young girl with a bad heart, must also deal with her mother's refusal to want her to see anything negative despite her own attempts to come to terms with her condition by looking at a variety of historical calamities.
One of the traditional aspects of a Willis novel, the screwball comedy, has been played down in Passage, which results in a stronger novel. Certainly, the characters display an unusual ability for not communicating with each other and running into realistic difficulties taken to the extreme, but this is not as intrusive and absurd as it has been in other Willis novels, such as The Doomsday Book. Screwball comedy has a tendency to work better on the screen than in a novel, perhaps because of the amount of attention the reader must pay to the written word as opposed to the attention of a film viewer. Willis's characters even discuss the inability of characters in film to make their meaning known, a discussion which proves one of the keys to solving the problem that arises about two thirds of the way through Passage.
Another theme which frequently appears in Willis's books is the predominance of films. Vielle and Landers are constantly discussing movies and spend a Dish Night together when they can escape from their work and just focus on relaxing in the company of films. Even beyond that, the characters discuss films and, after Landers finds herself on a boat during an NDE, they discuss how film imagery can create memories and images which did not actually occur to a person.
In some ways, Passage is redundant. Landers makes the discovery that she and Wright have been working for, but the other characters spend the last part of the novel attempting to recreate her discovery about what Near Death Experiences are for. Their work, including Landers's initial research, are not made any easier by the continuous red herrings which are thrown at them by Mandrake's research.
Passage is one of Willis's most entertaining and well-written novels. It includes much of the scientific procedural that she has used to such good effect in Bellwether while mixing in the correct amount of screwball humor, never letting the latter become overwhelming or making the situation too unrealistic.
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