Passages

by Jared W Cooper

Speculative
2020

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Solid premise let down by sketchy characterization, December 9, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

Despite the bad rap they sometimes get, to my mind thereís absolutely nothing wrong with a metaphor thatís too on-the-nose. Sure, the author might get an eye-roll or two at how obvious theyíre being, but most of the time thatís outweighed by the pleasure the reader gets at figuring out whatís going on, or feeling like theyíve gotten one over on the author (they havenít). If the emotion or idea that the metaphor is going for resonates, and itís grounded in specific circumstances and well-drawn characters so it doesnít just float away Ė and if it doesnít wear out its welcome Ė this can be a solid approach for a work of fiction. Iím thinking of the novel Exit West, for example, which explores immigration by having magic portals appear in the middle of a war-torn country, allowing people to leave in an instant but with no say where they wind up Ė thereís the eye-roll Ė but because the two main characters and their relationship are written with enough subtlety and detail that they feel true and specific, Exit West is good.

So, Passages then. Our narrator lives in another one of those worlds where magic portals are cropping up hither and yon, though these appear able to move one through time instead of space. Their partner, it quickly eventuates, has gone missing, either accidentally or on purpose entering one of the portals, or maybe their unhappiness summoned the portal or somehow they turned into one? Itís unclear, which is fine (whatís less fine is this awkwardness around pronouns, which is hard to write around since neither character has a name or gender assigned as far as I could tell Ė based on the relationship dynamics, I thought the narrator was male-coded and the partner female-coded, so Iím going to go with that while acknowledging itís arbitrary). We read occasional journal entries from the narrator as he dives into the portals, turning over his faults and recalling memories of happier times he searches for her in the nooks and crannies of the past (eye-roll).

This is fine so far as it goes Ė the writing isnít lyrical or anything, but itís well-considered and typo-free, and the narrator has a strong voice. And the experience Passages explores is quite universal so Iím sure it will have at least some resonance for most readers. There are two issues holding it back, though, one minor and one major. The minor issue is that Passages is barely interactive, beyond clicking to move to the next section of text There are I think two places where you can click a bit of text to change a word, but not in a way that really impacts the valence of the passage (one of them is something like ďI look for her in March/July/February/DecemberĒ). This makes it potentially an awkward fit in an interactive fiction competition, but isnít really a problem except to the extent that its presentation might lead the reader to expect a form of engagement thatís not on offer.

The bigger issue is I didnít find sufficient specificity in the characters and their relationship for them to transcend the metaphor and animate the piece with something of interest beyond the dry metaphor. The narrator is given a few details and bits of personality Ė heíd always wanted to be a carpenter, and he makes a number of nerdy references in the course of his writing Ė but itís pretty thin. And the partner is given almost no characteristics whatsoever. Partially I think this is because the narrator is idealizing her, now that heís lost her. But if anything this makes him seem even more self-regarding and navel-gazing.

And while we get the subject matter of some of the issues in the relationship, the dynamics are left frustratingly vague: at one point the narrator talks about a big fight they got into about the utility bills, and acknowledges that thatís a dumb thing to have a fight about, but thereís no remembered dialogue or other indication of the content of the fight. My brain can fill in some blanks (and hereís where gendered presuppositions are probably having an impact on my experience of the game): maybe he thought the water bill was too high because she was taking too long in the shower, and got mad about that? Thatís not very creative, but at least itís something, and seeing her do something that pisses off the narrator would help the piece land and provide fuel for his eventual catharsis.

Passages is zippy, and establishes a solid premise and character arc in the ten minutes or so to work through it, so it definitely speaks of an author to keep an eye on Ė but without a little more work done to make these characters breathe, Iím not sure how much of an impact itíll have on most readers.