Connie Willis' "Passage" is a suspense novel in the same way that Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" is a slasher movie; it defies the genre while still delivering its thrills. I'm tempted to dub "Passage" a neurological detective story with metaphysical leanings, but even that description goes too far in nailing down this mercurial work. I'm sure, though, that it's one of the smartest books I've read in years; its construction is a marvel of ingenuity and -- what's even more remarkable, given the wizardry of Willis' storytelling -- its intellectual honesty is impeccable.
"Passage" begins on a typically frazzled workday for Joanna Lander, a research psychologist who works at a large, rambling city hospital and who has for two years been collecting the oral accounts of people who have "coded" -- become clinically dead -- and then returned to life: near-death experiences. Richard Wright, a new neurologist at the institution, asks her to team up with him in his studies of a drug that can simulate an NDE. Richard uses a new technology called a "RIPT scan" that "simultaneously photographs the electrochemical activity in different subsections of the brain for a 3-D picture of neural activity in the working brain. Or the dying brain." He can manage the technological aspects of the research, but he needs her to help him map the images in the RIPT scans to the distinctive sensations reported by people undergoing NDEs.
Richard is a resolute materialist and Joanna tends to keep both feet on scientific bedrock as well; their foil is Maurice Mandrake, a New Age quack and author of "The Light at the End of the Tunnel," an "Embraced by the Light"-style bestseller claiming that the recurring motifs in NDEs -- the impression of being in a tunnel with a bright light and shining figures at one end -- prove the existence of an afterlife. Mandrake, favored by one of the hospital's wealthy patrons, has the run of the place, and Joanna spends much of her time either dodging his attempts to enlist her in his dubious projects or trying to interview NDE veterans before Mandrake can get at them and "contaminate" their memories with leading questions about angels and greetings from deceased relatives.
Joanna and Richard's investigation staggers along in counterpoint to the comic chaos of the hospital; the two doctors are forever getting lost in the mazelike conglomeration of poorly linked wings, ducking into doorways and stairwells to avoid Mandrake and overly chatty patients, rushing up and down hallways to track down colleagues who have (against regulations) turned off their pagers. Joanna's friends include a nurse who she wishes would transfer out of her dangerous emergency room post and Maisie, a 9-year-old with a serious heart condition who bridles under the attentions of her relentlessly cheery mother and harbors a secret obsession with famous disasters. While outlining the latest developments in chemical neuroscience, Willis casually spins out a convincing portrait of hospital life, in which the hectic jumble of everyday life is regularly shaken by tragedy and death.
Even the exigencies of plot here flow naturally from the small world Willis invents. So absorbing and believable is her depiction of the difficulties of assembling a group of reliable research subjects for Richard and Joanna's project (they have to weed out not only Mandrake's woo-woo ringers, but also the flaky, the overscheduled and those resistant to Richard's drug) that by the time Joanna finally decides to go under herself, it doesn't seem the slightest bit improbable. Her own visions of the tunnel, the light and the barely detectable figures moving beyond it begin to develop and evolve, with mystery opening onto mystery, until the two doctors clash over what's really happening in Joanna's mind.
At any point when I thought that I'd sussed out Willis' game, when I believed I knew where she was taking the story and what point she would ultimately make about NDEs, she called my bet -- and raised me some while she was at it. While no twist or turn of "Passage" fatally strains the novel's credibility, each one is genuinely surprising and surprisingly genuine. The impression that "Passage" gives of accompanying a bright and rigorous mind as it mulls over the great enigma of human consciousness through the process of storytelling is simply exhilarating.
What isn't terribly thrilling is the prose itself. You won't find the beautiful sentences of more-celebrated "novelists of ideas" here, though the ideas themselves are far better, more daring and more original, than those chewed over by most literary heavyweights. The dialogue can sound a trifle canned, the minor characters feel a mite thin (not that many novels of ideas don't share these flaws, too), which explains in part why "Passage" seems to hover between genre and genius. Given how rare a searching intelligence like Willis' is among today's novelists, does it really matter? The author of nine other idiosyncratic books -- dealing with everything from the Norman conquest to Victorian society -- Willis has built a devoted following. And she can add at least one more reader to their ranks.
Our next pick: A comic epic from the author of "Mohawk" and "Nobody's Fool"