Connie Willis: Passage

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Passage

Author: Connie Willis
Publisher: Bantam
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Passage

Author: Connie Willis
Publisher: Bantam

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Aside from her remarkable ability to channel the pacing and comedic style of Hollywood screwball comedies, Connie Willis' most striking skill as a writer is her way of finding emotional resonance in unlikely and offbeat subjects: the life and death of Robert E. Lee's horse, for instance, or the last functioning recreational vehicle. In Passage, she explores a more overtly emotional topic—life after death—with luminous clarity, walking the fine line between science and spiritualism with the confidence that comes from having a solid story and a powerful agenda. Her protagonists, psychologist Joanna Landry and neurologist Richard Wright, are thinly characterized versions of the harried romantic archetype that's practically become a trademark of Willis' work. Both are committed to decoding the clinical mysteries behind the "near-death experience," the images of angelic choirs and warm, welcoming lights shared by so many hospital patients dragged back from the edge of death. By stimulating certain areas of the brain with a psychoactive drug, Wright creates artificial NDEs under lab conditions, but with less than satisfactory results. Few of his volunteers pass Landry's no-self-proclaimed-psychic-nutcases screening process, and those who do give conflicting reports that seem at odds with their physiological reactions, or no coherent reports at all. Ultimately (and with much self-conscious mockery of the movie Flatliners), Landry becomes a test subject herself, and begins bringing back objective but highly unorthodox analyses of "the other side" more suited to a doctor than to a medium. Passage won't satisfy scientists any more than it will spiritualists: Its conclusions smack of pseudoscience, but Willis also mocks would-be mystics who describe a comforting afterlife-as-divine-party, where welcoming relatives bestow the Meaning Of The Universe on their newly (or temporarily) dead kin. There's certainly nothing comforting about Passage, which steeps its characters in death of all kinds—swift and sudden, prolonged and painful. Willis' satirical flair originally has Landry and Wright running around like The Three Stooges, juggling impossible schedules in an impossible environment and careening amidst exaggeratedly colorful characters in every chapter. A mid-book twist, however, takes the story into darker and more memorable territory, helping turn Passage into a complex, finely crafted, haunting story that makes the light at the end of the tunnel impossible to take lightly.

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