Metaphorically speaking

Connie Willis’ novel Passage has a big problem: Willis’ writing is so skilled, she almost pulls off the danged thing when it doesn’t deserve it.

The novel’s tasty in places, bringing to mind a delicious steak sandwich, made with the choicest beef, topped with lettuce, tomatoes and grilled onions. Every nibble is exquisitely cooked, the sauce spicy and tangy. The steak sweetly surrenders to your teeth. You strain your mouth around the toasted French roll, taking ever larger and more voracious bites, until three-fifths of the way through the sandwich, you bite into a large, bitter, fibroid cyst.

If you’re a food reviewer, you queasily send the sandwich back to the kitchen. If you’re a book reviewer, you have no choice but to finish, even though the cyst has metastasized through the remainder of the sandwich, er, book. Much of the writing is lush; the pacing is mostly suspenseful and the themes meritorious, yet the saccharine in the story leaves you choking.

Passage is the story of Dr. Joanna Lander, a researcher who is studying near-death experiences. She partners up with Dr. Richard Wright, another researcher, who can stimulate near-death experiences with a drug. The villain in this caper is Maurice Mandrake, author of an Embraced by the Light knock-off, The Light at the End of the Tunnel.

To hear Willis tell it, Mandrake’s agenda—to profit from gullible people’s hopes that there is an afterlife—is evil. The irony is, it’s that very yearning for an afterlife that Willis uses to sell her own book. To make a 594-page long story short, Lander takes the drug and has a near-death experience. She hears a noise, goes through a corridor, into a bright light and through a doorway where she finds herself on the RMS Titanic, the ship that sank on April 15, 1912. She returns to consciousness, takes more of the drug, hears the sound, goes through the corridor and lands on the Titanic again.

Willis spends an inordinate amount of time on Lander’s search for the origin of the sound, but, as far as I’m concerned, it was the sound of the door to my suspension of disbelief slamming shut. The lock clicks home about two-thirds through the book, when, despite being stabbed to death, Lander’s adventures in wanderland continue as she tries to send a message back to the land of the living.

Turns out that the Titanic is a metaphor for near-death experiences. The brain is trying any neural pathway available to get the body’s organs restarted, and the mind interprets that function as dead relatives, angels or real-life disasters. Fine, I can accept that. But why must Lander’s near-death experiences be metaphors for metaphors? In other words, everybody else’s near-death experience was a biological function, but Lander’s—running around the Titanic looking for specific people and places to solve particular questions—was an intellectual function.

I’ve got a strong feeling that this book won’t leave a bad taste in many readers’ mouths. People who like pop-culture icons, Titanic trivia and having their emotional switches manipulated might not let the fundamental philosophical offenses get in the way of their enjoyment of this book. The characters, like Ed Wojakowski, a World War II veteran, are well developed, if irritating. There are fun little chapter headings that include such delicious death facts as the last words of people like St. Boniface, Anne Boleyn and Archimedes.

As far as I’m concerned, the Titanic is fine as far as metaphors go. In fact, I think it’s a perfect metaphor for Willis’ book. Both are cumbersome, ornate and full of real characters. Unfortunately, neither lived up to expectations and both sank.