by cormac mccarthy
knopf, 400 pages, $30
by cormac mccarthy
knopf, 208 pages, $26
Cormac McCarthy seems firmly established as a canonical American novelist, but it may be several decades before we determine the precise nature of his achievement. His career has taken an odd shape. His early, Faulknerian novels, set in his native Tennessee, bore ample evidence of his talent but didn’t find an audience. His first Western novel, Blood Meridian (1985), set in the mid-nineteenth-century borderlands, is now widely regarded as his greatest achievement, but it initially confounded critics, who recognized its brilliance but were puzzled by its apparent celebration of violence. His next book, All the Pretty Horses (1992), the first volume of his Border Trilogy, brought him broad recognition. Unperturbed by success, he completed the trilogy, erecting his monuments even as he remained pointedly aloof from public life. And then, following the publication of the noir No Country for Old Men (2005) and the visionary, apocalyptic The Road (2006), he stopped publishing.
In some ways, The Road was a natural stopping point. It is the story of an unnamed father and son moving east and south across a lawless, Darwinian, post-apocalyptic United States. Society has been erased and replaced by tribes; violence is endemic; and as in our prehistory, life has been reduced principally to the search for food. In this environment of constant menace, the father and son are guided in their actions equally by instinct and by a teleology imported from the former world; they tell themselves poignantly, “We’re the good guys.” The boy’s mother, fearing rape and cannibalization, has died by suicide. The father must behave ruthlessly to ensure the boy’s survival, performing acts of violence that drive him to despair. Yet the boy does survive, and in the closing pages, he meets a woman who seems willing to assume a maternal role, though she gains no strict evolutionary advantage by doing so.
In considering the end of human civilization, The Road appeared to mark a slight but decisive shift in McCarthy’s tone—a move, say, from Schopenhauer to Camus. His prior work had been deeply pessimistic, starting from the premise that existence entails suffering without consolation. The Road both depicted humans at their most bestial and, paradoxically, offered a fractionally more affirmative statement on the nature of being. The relationship between father and son is moving, and the scene in which they are parted achieves an emotional register not found in McCarthy’s prior work. The Road gestures toward the possibility of a life that is purposeful even as meaning itself remains elusive.
That McCarthy should stop writing near the peak of his powers was not altogether surprising. He has a full intellectual life at the Santa Fe Institute (“SFI”), the think tank with which he has been associated since the 1980s. A research associate at SFI, McCarthy is said to report to his desk nearly every day, working on various problems in the interdisciplinary field of “complexity science” (the study of complex systems). From the beginning, his only literary interest has been to work at the absolute peak of his talent for as long as possible. He chose a strictly private life, granted few interviews, allowed his books to speak for themselves. So why not stop, if he felt he’d written what he needed to write?
For whatever reason, though, he could not—or at least did not—stop writing, only publishing. His two new, intertwined novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris, seem to have had their creative genesis in the same period as The Road. They arise out of the interests McCarthy has developed at SFI, including theoretical physics, the human capacity for language, and the role of the unconscious in mathematical problem-solving. Such subjects are not easily dramatized. These novels are intermittently fascinating, and they form an interesting coda to McCarthy’s career. They are also frequently frustrating.
The Passenger belongs to Bobby Western, a CalTech PhD dropout and salvage diver living in New Orleans in 1980. Bobby has some money tucked away but chooses to live among a semi-criminal element in the French Quarter. We learn, at the start of The Passenger, that Bobby’s sister, Alicia, committed suicide some years before at twenty-one. Alicia was a mathematical genius—a University of Chicago graduate at sixteen, enrolled in a doctoral program at the time of her death—beautiful, and mentally unstable. Her relationship with Bobby had a frustrated erotic element: She wanted to consummate it, he did not. Nonetheless, Bobby lives now mainly in tribute to his sister, the only person to whom he has ever felt close.
The plot of The Passenger is launched with a thrilling set piece in which Bobby participates in a recovery dive to a plane downed in shallow waters east of New Orleans.
Dropping slowly through the dark toward the intermittent flare of the torch below. He reached the stabilizer and dropped down onto the fuselage and turned and swam slowly along, tracing the smooth aluminum under his gloved hand. The bead of the rivets. The torch flared again. The shape of the fuselage tunneling off into the dark . . . Western pulled up in the door and Oiler shone his light down the aircraft aisle. The people sitting in their seats, their hair floating. Their mouths open, their eyes devoid of speculation.
This final clause—“their eyes devoid of speculation”—evokes a long debate about McCarthy’s style. He avoids cliché; the usual thing would be to say that the eyes of the dead are “vacant.” Instead, he substitutes a phrase that is both more interesting and an example of the sort of metaphysical puffery for which he has sometimes been criticized.
Having set up an intriguing mystery about the plane’s fate—how, given that its doors are sealed, have crucial items gone missing from the cockpit? And why is one passenger unaccounted for?—McCarthy simply declines to resolve it. These questions may not have an answer; indeed, The Passenger takes the limits of human reason as a theme. A compact with the reader is nonetheless broken. Perhaps this is not the kind of story in which a gun that appears in the first act must be fired in the third. But some narrative conventions are not easily abstracted from the form of the novel itself.
Bobby finds himself visited by men presenting themselves as FBI agents, then pursued by the IRS. The suggestion is that the federal government’s interest in him is related to the downed plane, but we must leave open the possibility that Bobby, in whose family mental illness is prevalent, is simply paranoid. Bobby begins to live as a kind of fugitive, working only for cash, leaving as little trace of himself as possible. He engages a private detective to help him find out who has been harassing him. The detective takes him to lunch at Mosca’s; he also feeds Bobby’s paranoia with conspiracy theories. What he doesn’t do is help the plot very much.
J. Robert Oppenheimer’s complex techno-pessimism is the prevailing mood here. As the children of a Manhattan Project physicist, Bobby and Alicia represent the tragic inheritance of Western technological progress. For McCarthy, science is our glory—“Name one thing about the world that makes it a better place than the world of 1900 that isn’t due to science,” Alicia demands of her psychiatrist, Dr. Cohen—but it will also be our undoing, because we have unleashed forces of destruction that we cannot hope to control. Alicia tells Dr. Cohen, “[A]nyone who doesn’t understand that the Manhattan Project is one of the most significant events in human history hasn’t been paying attention.” Both Alicia and Bobby consider whether their father should have felt guilty about his own role at Los Alamos. “He didn’t,” Alicia says. “He didn’t have a lot of sympathy with all the handwringing that went on after Hiroshima.” His lonely death from cancer and burial in a remote Mexican town do, however, suggest a man burdened by his legacy.
At the end of The Passenger, the spiritually exhausted Bobby has moved to Spain’s Balearic Islands, a self-imposed exile that echoes his father’s. He survives, but he does not make a separate peace. He has no earthly purpose, no teleology. He is only waiting to see Alicia again.
The ages of men stretching grave to grave. An accounting on a slate. Blood, darkness. The washing of dead children on a board. The stone laminations of the world with their fossil prints unreckonable in form and number. . . . He knew that on the day of his death he would see her face and he could hope to carry that beauty into the darkness with him, the last pagan on earth, singing softly upon his pallet in an unknown tongue.
The Passenger and Stella Maris should come with “This Is Not An Exit” stamped on the dust jacket: fair warning.
The Passenger is by Cormac McCarthy, so it has astonishing things in it. What it lacks is unity, the cultivated impression that all the elements belong to a single artistic gesture. Several set pieces seem to belong to different books: A friend tells Western a vivid story from his combat experience in Vietnam; Western takes a transvestite friend to lunch; the detective muses on why Lee Harvey Oswald could not have assassinated President Kennedy. One understands McCarthy’s desire, at eighty-nine, to empty his notebooks. And complaining that McCarthy hasn’t produced a conventional novel is a bit like saying that Stravinsky may be innovative, but you can’t dance to him. Even so, the decision to include so much apparently extraneous material in The Passenger is puzzling. One imagines the single, more coherent work that The Passenger/Stella Maris might have been.
These novels set off in new directions thematically, but the stylistic signatures are the same as ever: the recondite verbs (“the rusty Liberian freighters bollarded”); the pleasure taken in technical jargon (an “oxyarc,” we learn, is a kind of acetylene torch used deep underwater); the baroque figurative language (“the lights moving along the causeway like the slow cellular crawl of waterdrops on a wire”). McCarthy’s style has sometimes been described as “spare” or “austere,” but this confuses his prose with the landscapes it has often described (and with McCarthy’s preference for unpunctuated sentences). While McCarthy does an elegant Hemingway pastiche (“Then he blew out the splinter and put it back in the can and shut the stove door and returned to the table with the pot and refilled the boy’s cup”), this is a minor mode. In fact, his instinct, like Faulkner’s, is to put in rather than take out, to employ all the resources of the language to maximum effect.
At times, indeed, McCarthy’s figurative language seems excessive. One of the opening sentences of All the Pretty Horses describes an approaching train: “It came boring out of the east like some ribald satellite of the coming sun howling and bellowing in the distance and the long light of the headlamp running through the tangled mesquite brakes.” There is more going on here than the reader can hope to parse—and the phrase “like some ribald satellite of the coming sun” is almost nonsense. I think sentences like this are not a failure of taste on McCarthy’s part—he must know how this kind of writing is likely to land—but a way of making creative space for himself. There is a sort of aesthetic bullying going on here. Like Faulkner and Melville, he demands to be taken for a genius or not at all.
Stella Maris is composed of the transcripts of seven psychotherapy sessions that Alicia has with Dr. Cohen at the eponymous institution to which she has voluntarily committed herself. Alicia’s intake notes refer to her as schizophrenic, but this doesn’t seem quite right, even though she describes what sound like visual and auditory hallucinations. She is most often visited by the Thalidomide Kid, a tiny man with the flipper-like appendages of the classic thalidomide birth defect and burned skin that invokes Hiroshima or the effects of napalm. He speaks in breakneck riffs, like a phantasmagorical Dennis Miller:
You put everything in a jar and then you name the jar and go from there à la the Gödel and Church crowd and in the meantime real stuff which is probably some substrate of the substrate is hauling ass off down the road at deformable speeds with the provision that what has no mass has no volume variant or otherwise and therefore no shape and what cant flatten cant inflate and vice versa in the best commutative tradition and at this point—to borrow a term—we’re stuck. Right?
The Thalidomide Kid trails behind him some other characters who, McCarthy suggests, represent fragments of Alicia’s unconscious. “You think that you might be able to stage out of [them] an opera of my troubled mental processes,” she tells Dr. Cohen. “I wish you luck.” They probably aren’t bringing good news, even if they are trying to keep her alive.
Among other things, Stella Maris is an extended attack on psychiatry, which in 1972 means Freud before the fall. When Dr. Cohen tries to provoke Alicia, he is quickly reminded that his consolations seem ludicrous to her:
The world you live in is shored up by a collective of agreements. Is that something you think about? The hope is that the truth of the world somehow lies in the common experience of it. Of course the history of science and mathematics and even philosophy is a good bit at odds with this notion. Innovation and discovery by definition war against the common understanding.
Alicia lectures the psychiatrist at length about mathematics and music theory and the culture of the Manhattan Project. There is simply no other way for McCarthy to provide the intellectual history we need in order to understand the Western family’s enervating inheritance. At first, this pedantry makes Alicia a little tiresome; no one likes a know-it-all, especially when she is twenty-one. And then you get a resonant insight that makes you sit up straight again:
All recent history is about death. When you look at photos taken in the late nineteenth century what occurs to you is that all of those people are dead. If you go back a bit further everyone is still dead but it doesnt matter. Those deaths are less to us. But the brown figures in the photographs are something else.
People prefer fate to chance. Soldiers really do believe that there is a bullet out there with their name on it. I think most people believe not only in a book of life but in a book of their life. Fate can be appeased, gods prayed to. But chance is just what it says it is.
You either like this kind of metaphysical rat-tat-tat or you don’t; I do. Alicia’s cantering mind itself, more than her disquisitions on Gödel and Oppenheimer and Chesterton, and certainly more than the plot, is the reward of Stella Maris. This talkativeness sometimes doesn’t seem to belong to the form of the novel at all. But it is periodically exhilarating.
These novels contemplate the tragic limits of our understanding. The world is more complex than we can imagine, and those who, like Alicia, venture the furthest are rewarded only with more questions, branching exponentially to infinity. And yet The Passenger and Stella Maris are fascinated by differences in human intelligence: the difference in cognitive power and imagination between Alicia, who is a genius, and Bobby, who to his great regret is not; the difference between Bobby and the other divers, men of practical expertise who know their limitations; above all, the difference between Alicia and her psychiatrist, whom she finds sympathetic but intellectually complacent. “Verbal intelligence will only take you so far,” Alica tells him. “There is a wall there, and if you don’t understand numbers you won’t even see the wall.” These are differences not of degree, McCarthy seems to say, but of kind. Alicia’s inner life is incommensurable with that of an ordinary person, even a learned one. Bobby can appreciate her, but even he cannot entirely understand her. Her terrible loneliness echoes long after the last page of Stella Maris has been turned.
Genius in these novels is a burden to its bearer even as it may be a gift to others. We are reminded that genius is often associated with disturbance. Alicia’s descriptions of how her mathematical talent expresses itself suggest not the exercise of reason—and certainly not “math” as it is commonly known—but something almost supernatural (“At its worst there are audible suggestions . . . You dont dare sleep”). In her case, McCarthy suggests, “schizophrenia” is merely a domesticating label for a more deeply unsettling phenomenon. “The alienist skirts the edges of lunacy,” Alicia tells Dr. Cohen, “as the priest does sin.”
McCarthy’s deep philosophical pessimism, evident since at least Blood Meridian or even Child of God (1973), inevitably raises the question of suicide. The father of Child of God’s Lester Ballard hangs himself when he loses the family farm; Suttree (1979) opens with the protagonist watching police pull a suicide from a river; in The Passenger, one of Bobby’s raffish New Orleans acquaintances kills himself with carbon monoxide. Stella Maris is, however, McCarthy’s most thorough examination of Camus’s “one truly serious philosophical problem.” We know from the opening scene of The Passenger that Alicia has killed herself, and the dialogues with Dr. Cohen that make up Stella Maris become a kind of psychological autopsy. She contemplates, terrifyingly, the prospect of drowning in winter:
When you’ve finally given up your rat’s struggle and breathe in the water—scaldingly cold—you are going to experience pain beyond the merely agonizing . . . And it’s not going to go away. Because your lungs can never warm the water they’ve inhaled. I think we’re talking about an agony that is simply off the scale. No one’s ever said. And it’s forever. Your forever.
McCarthy finds great beauty in complexity science. Stella Maris asks us to believe that this beauty is both our consolation and possibly our undoing. But if such beauty reveals itself only to geniuses, how much consolation is it to the rest of us, who can participate only vicariously? Even if we are among that small elect, topology and quantum mechanics make no place of honor for human beings in the universe; indeed, they tend to render the human project futile, even risible. In this sense, The Passenger and Stella Maris seem not like a reprise of the existentialist notes sounded in The Road but a reformulation of Blood Meridian’s pessimism. McCarthy is again exploring a brutally indifferent cosmos—one that, even if it is orderly, is spiritually empty.
Yet McCarthy’s writing itself has always had an unmistakable urgency. A great deal of the American literary tradition passes through him, like oil through an engine. What he has made himself, that marmoreal fusion of language, imagination, and myth, seems likely to stand for a long time. The Passenger and Stella Maris are not McCarthy’s best novels. Perhaps they are not quite novels at all. But they deepen our appreciation of the philosophical exploration that has been his career’s deepest motive.
Jonathan Clarke is a lawyer, essayist, and critic living in New York.
Image by Justin Brendel.