Friday, September 17

Passage – Connie Willis

Joanna Lander is a psychologist investigating near-death experiences, a research field mired in pseudoscience and agenda. Located at Mercy General, her aim is to get to patients who’ve survived dying as quickly as possible, partly to record their experiences as accurately as she can while they’re still fresh, and partly so her data is uncontaminated by her biggest rival at Mercy General, Maurice Mandrake. Author of such erudite tomes as The Light at the End of the Tunnel, Mr Mandrake reshapes survivor’s memories to fit his theory, ruining any subsequent interviews Joanna manages. When she hears about another NDE researcher, Joanna goes to lengths to avoid him – in her experience even the fact he’s an MD is no evidence of sanity.
But Richard Wright is as scientifically based as she is. A neurologist convinced that NDE’s occur for a reason related to survival, he’s created a drug that seems to imitate the NDE experience without endangering the participants – they continuous brain scanning and blood collection while they undergo the induced NDE. His work would allow Joanna access to uncontaminated data from people undergoing repeated, manufactured NDE’s, if only they could get enough appropriate subjects. Instead their ever-shrinking pool includes a socialite to busy to ever undergo the process, a garrulous WW2 veteran more interested in telling tales of his experiences there than post-NDE, a taciturn man who seems to experience nothing when he goes under, and an increasingly skittish college student. Which is why, desperate to discover something before the first round of funding expires, Joanna becomes a subject.
Part of the advantage of having Joanna undergo the process was that she, unlike the other participants, would be able to describe the experience more accurately:
“I’d know if dark meant dark as in Carlsbad Caverns or the hospital parking lot at nine o’clock at night. I’d know if peaceful meant ‘tranquil’ or ‘anesthetized.’ And I’d know what they’re experiencing that they’re not even mentioning because they don’t realize it’s important, and I don’t know how to ask them about it.”
As a qualitative proto-researcher I understand that frustration, of your participants unable to usefully describe or articulate the elements of their experience or practice that you want to explore, and the difficulty of neither leading them nor letting them leave without saying something. So Joanna is all the more frustrated by her inability to capture many of the elements of her own experience, which Richard takes as support for his position that the NDE is a temporal lobe event – the temporal lobe has no connection with the brain’s language centre, and thus no way of articulating. But for Joanna, whose NDE’s built to a fuller, but metaphorical, experience, this focus distracts from her attempts to identify a familiarity she’s certain she has but can’t quite recall.
Her frustration about these teasing almost connections is extremely effectively portrayed – every time she was close to consciously realising what something meant she was interrupted and the fleeting proto-thought vanished again. This aspect was combined with an element that frequently recurs is Willis’s work: as in The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, in particular, there’s a terrific state of urgency, enhanced by obstacles and people to avoid. While reading the novel I had much the same feeling as one of those dreams where I need to get somewhere in a frantic hurry but am obstructed at every turn. Though caught up in the rush, I also felt irritated by it – the research, though potentially life-saving, didn’t require that kind of immediacy, and I kept being annoyed that Joanna’s priorities were directed toward that rather than the truly time-constrained situation of Maisie, a disaster-obsessed young girl with worsening heart failure.
It is this narrowed, urgent focus that leads to the biggest twist in Passage – having finally discovered the purpose of NDE’s, Joanna frantically searches Mercy General for Richard; hearing that another doctor with whom he’s associated has gone to the ER, where her best friend Vielle works as a senior nurse, she rushes down there. Joanna doesn’t see Richard, but she does see an anxious-looking Vielle talking with a young man – anxious to find Richard and tell him of her discovery, she interrupts the pair, only to find that the young man is armed with a knife, with which he stabs her. As the ER staff swings into action to try to save her, Joanna tries just as desperately to convey the information to Vielle, an effort that she takes with her into her final NDE.
And though I enjoyed Passage as a whole, this is where I detached from the text, because really – apart from the needs of the narrative, what was the rush? There aren’t going to be real world applications of any scientific advance, let alone one as esoteric as this, in anything under a couple of years, so waiting less than an hour for her next scheduled meeting with Richard wouldn’t have delayed anything.
The remaining couple of chapters alternate between Joanna’s new perspective, frantically trying to communicate her findings to Richard before it’s too late, and Richard’s attempts (assisted by Maisie, Vielle, another character whose plot thread I’ve not had space to explore and, unwittingly, Mandrake) to piece together what Joanna did for a missing hour and what relevance it had. This was interesting, and complemented the sense of haste woven through the novel, but I alternated my reading with thinking about what the book would have been like without this twist.
Each chapter opens with a death-related quote, from the last words of historical figures to the last letters of the famous, last messages from lost planes and sunk ships to live reports from broadcasters seeing a tragedy unfold before them. The characters are rounded and well drawn, and I found the research topic fascinating, particularly as it’s related to my own area of academic interest. I’ve yet to have any direct contact with a death survivor who talked about having an NDE, but was prepared to let that aspect go.
Despite its somewhat grim subject matter, there are touches of comedy in Passage. Joanna distresses Richard when, weeding through his participant list looking for Mandrakian ringers, she finds half a dozen who seemed find on Richard’s initial screening but who are True Believers associated with the near-death community, spies for Mandrake, or believe they’ve been abducted by aliens, or otherwise tainted. When Richard, outraged by her revelations, is surprised they weren’t all picked up by the preliminary psych profile, Joanna replies “Believing in the afterlife isn’t a mental illness; a number of major religions have been doing it for centuries.” There is also a romantic undertone, so that although nothing completely develops the reader is left with a strong sense of potential.
I also really enjoyed a thread I alluded to above and haven’t been able to explore here, which involved Mr Briarly, Joanna’s favourite high school teacher, now struggling with Alzheimer’s, and his niece Kit. Both the characters and the situation were beautifully portrayed, and I particularly liked the depiction of Alzheimer’s as a progressive death of personhood. There is also a recurring motif throughout the novel, clear in retrospect, that hints at the purpose of NDE’s; the characters in the book, like this reader, were equally blind to them, and in the last section they were also deaf to Mr Briarly’s remarks that, in a metaphysical communication with Joanna and with the part of him already gone, desperately tried to pass on a message.
I feel as though I’ve failed to capture all the elements of Passage that I’d like to – I haven’t, for example, given Maisie a fraction of the time she deserves, nor her fascination with disasters, the apparently tangential recurring Titanic/disaster motif, or even mentioned the confabulating Mrs Davenport. On the other hand perhaps, by having difficulty directly communicating what I intend, I’m doing Passage greater justice than I think. – Alex

To read Lynn’s review of Passage click here.

1 comment:

Italia said...

Amazing novel about a psychologist who studies near-death experience by interviewing people who have had them. She meets up with a neurologist who can manufacture them, and before long they are studying near-death together. The plot twist in this book will keep you reading all night, but I don't want to give anything away.