Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Everything is a Symbol

One of my personal highlights in the last year was discovering the works of Connie Willis. When people ask me about her, I say, "She's unique! Her books are something unlike anything I've ever read before." Okay, that's not the case for To Say Nothing of the Dog, which is a tribute to multiple works, and contains comedy equal to those works. However, Doomsday Book was spectacular; bleak at times, but spectacular all the same. And I just finished Passage. I checked it out initially from our library, didn't get around to it, and then checked it out a second time. The premise didn't pique my interest when I read the blurbs about it. But, WOW. It blew my mind. Twice.

Joanna Lander, a psychologist, and Richard Wright, a neurologist, are doing a scientific study on near-death experiences. That sounds only mildly interesting, right? Yet after reading the first 100 pages, I told Ickie, "I just read 100 pages of mostly technical dialogue between two doctors wandering around a hospital and it's GRIPPING!" Willis writes dialogue well; her books are long and filled with it, and she somehow succeeds in making scenes of dialogue referring to the wreck of the Hindenberg, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and temporal-lobe stimulation thrilling. I don't even know how she does it. The historical information is fascinating, the literary references are poetic and meaningful, and Willis's descriptive prose is lovely (on one page she goes from a discussion about neurotransmitters to a haunting description of snow falling under sodium streetlights *sigh*).

Anyway, Richard simulates near-death experiences (NDEs) with chemicals, and Joanna interviews the study subjects about what they've seen. They spend most of the book running around Mercy General, the labyrinthine hospital where they work, avoiding a neo-spiritualist hack trying to sabotage their study. Eventually, Joanna decides to undergo the NDE simulation herself. The hospital is a mirror image of Joanna's mental confusion as she struggles to understand what she has seen in her near-death state and derive some sort of medical knowledge or personal significance. I felt the same psychological turmoil and "tip of the mind" feeling that Joanna often has. There are also several other characters who offer insight: Joanna's former literature teacher, who has Alzeimer's; an overly chatty WWII vet; and a little girl with a failing heart who is obsessed with disasters.

I wish I could say more about the plot, but I don't want to give too much away, and honestly, I could write a whole other book about this book. As I mentioned earlier, something wildly unexpected happens two-thirds through, then the plot drags in bits for the last third, and all of a sudden, POW! The final chapter was simply stunning. I was curious and a little skeptical about how Willis could write a novel about NDEs and manage to say something significant, either scientifically or spiritually, without it coming off completely bogus. As in Doomsday Book, there are several Christian or "spiritual" characters whose beliefs are grating, and for a while I assumed that Willis would concentrate on a satisfyingly scientific solution to her mystery. The scientific solution was there, and it was satisfying and significant. But my mind was indeed blown a second time in the final chapter. Everyone and everything in this book is a metaphor or a message. Even the chapter-opener quotes (usually the last words of famous people) are weighty with meaning. Because some traditional/religious beliefs were represented in an off-putting light, I reacted against them (even though I believe many of them), and as a result, I arrived at the finale with open expectations, and Willis's imagery dazzled me.

Passage is a book about death and fear and hope with gallows humor and terror and the best of humanity and everything, everything, is a symbol for something. I could keep writing and thinking about it for days on end, and I wish I had a friend who just read it so that I could discuss it in more detail!

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