No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, August 01, 2001

Passage -- Connie Willis

… Passage (Connie Willis) had me in floods, and not for what I suspect are the obvious reasons. It was not at all what I expected, and some aspects of the novel crept up on me and announced themselves by reducing me to tears, sometimes halfway through a sentence. I think I'd rather be distressed, alone, by words on a printed page and the images they evoke than by reference to the same images in a public place.

Paul Kincaid has commented on the inappropriate slapstick elements of the novel - the first half of the novel, at least - which delude the reader into thinking that this is just another romantic comedy along the lines of Bellwether or To Say Nothing of the Dog. The same characters, in marginally different guises, form the central trio. Joanna is the sensible academic female, trying not to be romantic or frivolous: Tish is the ditzy, predatory younger woman, academically her inferior, who clearly looks down on her unworldliness: and Richard is the oblivious genius with his mind on higher things, out of touch with his feelings … yes, we're in Mills & Boon territory again. And this is a hospital romance.

Because of that, I didn't expect raw, painful emotions or an unsentimental, un-American discussion of death. Nor did I expect to be so upset over the fictional, gradual decline of a fictional character. Joanna's high school English teacher, Mr Briarley, has Alzheimer's, and is slowly forgetting everything he knew; every quotation, every memory, every word. 'I used to think that a quick death, with no time to say goodbye, was the worst that could happen' says one character (or words to that effect). How I envy anyone who, through a drug-induced experimental state of mind, can experience their loved one 'well and happy, with limbs and faculties restored'. Even if I knew that it was an illusion, it would be a terribly addictive one.

It would have been so easy for Connie Willis to find a kind way out, to give this book some measure of happy ending, real or illusory. It would have been almost as easy to slide into the realms of the fantastic and stop it being a novel about science at all (because that's what it is, considerably more than it's a romance). That she does neither, that she does not cheat but unflinchingly challenges the reader's forlorn hopes, is to her credit. She is honest about death in a way that amply demonstrates how little patience she has with the 'denial' culture of modern America.

There are aspects of the book that I question, even while being powerfully affected by some of the writing. Joanna's clinically-induced experiences seem much clearer than those of the other experimental subjects, but there's no good reason for that. Richard does something very unprofessional and unscientific - I wonder why, because he doesn't seem like a person whose basic principles would be overruled by emotion, even in extremity, to that degree. I'm unsettled by the ending, and wonder about the imagery: but even outside the realms of the book I can make it fit my beliefs and assumptions, and it certainly works with the rest of the novel.

Recommended, unless you are in a vulnerable state of mind. If I'd known, would I have started reading the book? I carried on even after I realised how close to the bone it was getting: but it's immensely readable, and I'd have found it harder to stop reading (and let my imagination take over) at that point than to continue.

(NB: My father was hospitalised last year after a stroke: he's had Parkinson's disease for the last decade, but since May 2001 he's deteriorated very quickly, to the extent that sometimes he doesn't recognise me, and he is convinced that my mother - dead fifteen years - is living in the same nursing home as him).