Passage, Connie Willis

Bantam, 2001, 780 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58051-5

Sometimes, I get the feeling that I’m the only SF fan on the face of the planet who’s not a hundred-and-ten percent fan of Connie Willis’ work. Whenever I admit doubts about her stories, people spit at me, dogs bite my ankles and even babies stare in my direction with disgust.

Well, okay, maybe not, but part of Willis’ skill is that she makes even the haters hate themselves. After all, isn’t she the smartest, the funniest, the best? Her story certainly have charm to spare: every word, every sentence is carefully put in place to make us dance like puppets to the tune she’s singing. Her stories are often funny on the page, but they’re developed with serious rigor. A major novel like Passage is a superb showcase for those skills.

Just take a look at the premise: It’s a romantic comedy in which a psychologist studies patients experiencing Near-Death Experiences. Major cognitive dissonance right there, and that’s even before reading a single line of the novel.

Even a few chapters in, the usual Willis trademarks are obvious: The frazzled protagonist struck in an amusing nightmare of overlapping complications; the copious amount of pop-cultural references; the amusing succession of slapstick comedy, hilarious exasperation and romantic entanglements. The plot takes time to emerge, but it does with increasing darkness, as the protagonist teams up with a researcher who has found a way to safely induce NDEs to volunteers. But something makes the volunteers run away, and soon it’s up to the protagonist to submit herself to her own study… with spectacular results.

Objectively, it’s far from being a bad book: The compelling nature of Willis’ prose is as sharp as it’s ever been, and the comic complications keep piling up at a frenzied pace. The SF elements of the story are initially slight, but gradually acquire more and more heft. The many characters are leisurely developed and eventually…

…eventually, we come to realize that the novel’s 780 pages are its own worst problem. There is no economy to the telling, and the repetitive nature of some complications start to take its toll. The story hangs in mid-air for a long time, asking far too much indulgence for missed phone calls, silly character decisions and an obstinate refusal to proceed forward. I often complain that hundreds of pages could be cut from some novels, but it’s not an exaggeration in Passage‘s case: A novel half as long could have done wonders for the story’s impact.

But perhaps there’s a reason to the lethargy created by this pile of words: Willis seldom shies away from emotional sucker-punches, and there’s a shocking twist a hundred pages from the end that’s both surprising yet foreshadowed by dozens of small hints. It leads to a conclusion that will play really well with some, and remind a self-hating minority of doubters that blatant emotional manipulation remains one of Willis’ most accomplished strength as a writer.

I have no doubt that my reaction to the novel is idiosyncratic and that it will go over really well with other readers: Willis’ bibliography is crammed with works (Doomsday Book, “Even the Queen” , “All my Darling Daughters”, etc.) that appeal to a certain segment of the readership while leaving others free to cry “emotional manipulation!” between fits of self-doubts. Passage thus fits in an enviable lineage: it’s the typical mixture of farce and tragedy, skillfully put together but not impervious to a cock-eyed “oh, really?” reaction. I suspect that I will appreciate this novel a lot more once I’m past my terrible thirties.

But even confused haters will recognize that Passage is a powerful piece of work: risky, humane, brilliant and well-researched. The length is a problem, but maybe only to those who already have reservations about the novel as a whole: Others may see it as much more of a good thing. One thing is for sure: Passage doesn’t make it any easier to be critical of Willis’ work.

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