Talking to Ghosts in “Passersthrough” – Chicago Review of Books


Peter Rock’s latest novel, Passersthrough, is tricky business. The premise hints at mystery—a young girl goes missing in the wilderness for a week; now, 25 years later, her father wants answers—but the novel itself resists practically every convention of the genre. It reads more like a ghost story—unsettling, ruminative, impressionistic, somewhat like Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation or Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream. As with the latter, Passersthrough takes an unusual structure that veils important contextualizing details. Rock hops between audio transcriptions, faxed documents, a single newspaper clipping, his own minimalistic prose. The resulting narration is enticing, if not forthcoming—the reading experience piquing, if not exactly pleasurable.

When Helen Hanson is 11 years old, Benjamin takes her on a routine camping trip in Mount Rainier National Park, where the two are somehow separated and where Helen inexplicably vanishes. While Benjamin denies any wrongdoing—he is just as baffled by her disappearance as everyone else—strange, perhaps damning details loom. She had been blindfolded, for example, and may not have been wearing any shoes. As is revealed in a brief newspaper clipping, “Hanson was found over a hundred miles from where her father claimed she was last seen.” 

When the novel begins, Helen wants to reestablish contact with her father after decades of estrangement related to the incident, but her desire to connect isn’t untainted by anxiety. She goes to great lengths to maintain a certain distance. In the opening scene—mostly meted out to the reader in the form of an audio transcript—we learn that Helen is setting up a recording device in Benjamin’s home that will send his communiques directly to her phone, where she can read and process them at her own pace. (During their already halting first interaction, Helen insists, “Let’s take it slower; I have to go slow.”) In return, she sends him faxes, which, given that the novel is set in 2018, feels like a pointed refusal of intimacy. 

Stilted, unsatisfying communications like these are ubiquitous in Passersthrough—are perhaps even reflected in the collaged structure, its hodgepodge of incomplete missives, or in the characters’ attempts and failures to connect with their dead loved ones. In particular, Helen’s younger brother, Derek, who died the year before her disappearance, is a looming presence that can’t quite be reached. Helen believes her excursions into the forest with her father are an attempt to find her dead brother. Benjamin sees his son in quotidian objects, unable to resist imbuing them with meaning. “I saw a small red mitten,” he says, “stuck on a fence post like it was waving at me…Even now I see all these signs, I see them as messages from Derek.”

Soon after Helen leaves Benjamin’s Portland home for her own in California, another character enters, Melissa, an eccentric vagabond whom Benjamin meets when her dog attacks him, and who quickly takes an interest in the mystery of his daughter’s disappearance. Though ostensibly an outsider, Melissa is the host of the show, assuming the role of detective and surrogate daughter. One wicked irony is that Helen’s job involves writing code “to keep people from accessing other people’s information—so they can’t impersonate you, steal your identity.” Melissa, however, is invasive, reading Helen’s faxes, stealing Benjamin’s car and computer, at one point literally impersonating Helen, stealing her identity. The parallels are uncanny. “Was she barefoot?” Benjamin wonders of Melissa in their chaotic first encounter. “[Y]ou were barefoot or in your moccasins,” he says to Helen, trying to recall that fateful day all those years ago. 

The seeming illogic of Melissa’s fixation on Helen appears also to circle back to some sort of attempted communion—in her case, with a sister who died in a fire. “All of this, my sister taught me,” Melissa tells Benjamin, on one of the hikes they take together (just as he used to hike with Helen). “She could do anything, in the woods, in the city. She could get into buildings from tunnels beneath the street, she could stay right in your blind spot, she could follow a person like that.” The image is daunting, perhaps unnerving, but sheds light on Melissa’s desire to hunt, to follow clues, to find answers. 

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As the novel goes on—and it progresses quickly; it is so brief as to demand it be read in a single sitting—the suggestion of ghostly communication becomes more literal. We venture into a house where two children are murdered; we learn bizarre, supernatural-seeming details about Helen’s behavior on the day she was found. Benjamin recalls of their hikes a notebook left in a lean-to, “to see if anyone would write in it.” As they move the journal deeper into the woods, the messages shift from “dirty words” scribbled by partiers, to messages from boy scouts, to eerie sketches left by passersthrough. “That’s where you started talking about the passersthrough as a kind of person different from us,” he tells Helen, “who might need something or draw those drawings, who might be trying to reach us.” 

Who are these mysterious passersthrough? Rock allows the reader to glimpse some half-answers and obscures others in shadow. The effect is at times frustrating and at others chilling. Passersthrough paints in broad strokes that, despite their occasionally maddening ambiguity, form an evocative portrait of grief and the magical thinking that suffuses our longings to communicate with the loved ones we’ve lost. It’s affecting, perhaps more so in the hours and days that follow the turning of the final page, when the hazy, inscrutable impressions left by Rock’s discerning hand continue to provoke and haunt.

By Peter Rock
Soho Press
Published April 19, 2022

Lily Houston Smith

Lily Houston Smith is a critic, essayist, and podcast editor based in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in LA Review of Books, The Rumpus, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Guernica, and other publications. Currently, she is working toward an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism at NYU. Follow her on Twitter @Lily_H_Smith.


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