Passage by Connie Willis

A frustrating book, in multiple ways.

Frustrating because it’s good, it’s really good, for about 2/3 of the book. Like her novel Bellweather, Willis really nails the feeling of trying to get something meaningful done while working inside a vast uncaring bureaucracy. By putting me through the minutiae of the main character’s days — including her thoughts on trying to decide what to eat — Willis pulled me into that character’s head, and gave me just as much emotional stake in her research as she had.

Frustrating, too, because the payoff kept getting pushed out. All that daily minutiae means it takes a few hundred pages before anything really happens in the book, and another few hundred pages before the next event, and so on. The last hundred pages of the second third of the book I couldn’t stop reading, I had to find out what was going to happen. This was partly because of how involved in the character’s life I’d become, but also because it took those hundred pages for something to occur.

I can’t decide if that technique is completely unfair to the reader — certainly felt unfair to me at the time — or a master stroke of writing something so addicting it kept me reading long past the point of where I’d have dropped something else.

I did drop it, though. The main storyline basically ends with Part 2. Part 3 is just other characters scrambling to duplicate the main character’s research from Parts 1 & 2, and by that point I’d gotten so frustrated with the pacing that I just skimmed the rest to confirm my suspicions about the plot, and moved on.

So I’m taking this book as a warning for my own writing. I think my novel has grown to the length it has partly because of how much time I’ve spent in my main characters’ heads, writing out their hopes and fears and internal debates. Looking at Passage, it’s a very powerful technique, but its use has to be balanced carefully against the action and dialogue that moves the story forward. Too much of it, and my story will become one long crawl upwards, with few drops or twists and turns to provide some release.