It is not too much to infer that the unusual, staggered publishing schedule of Cormac McCarthy’s new pair of novels—first, The Passenger and two months later, Stella Maris—was less a marketing ploy than an artistic choice on the author’s part. The two books about brother and sister Bobby and Alice Western form a kind of literary dyad that restates the many joined opposites and correlatives with which McCarthy is consumed. These dualities run from the pedestrian to the sublime to the frighteningly abstruse: brother and sister, reason and insanity, destruction and progress, faith and unbelief, God and Devil, wave and particle, the material and the metaphysical. In The Passenger and Stella Maris, McCarthy has housed the exploration of these themes in a structure that is itself an entangled twosome.
There’s a sort of key to understanding this in Stella Maris. The psychiatrist Dr. Cohen asks Alice, “Can a thing exist with no assistance?” “Logically no,” she responds. “If space contained but a single entity the entity would not be there. There would be nothing for it to be there to.” It’s an odd formulation, “to be there to,” but the two books are there to each other, each the thing that means the other exists.
Their double launch is also a simple means of guiding readers to address the books in the order that makes most sense. The Passenger, which focuses mostly on Bobby during his time as a New Orleans salvage diver in the 1980s, is a relatively accessible novel with something like a plot, and it establishes McCarthy’s brother-sister world. Stella Maris, which is “set” a decade earlier while Bobby lay in a coma after a race-car crash in Italy, is a book-length conversation between Alice and a psychiatrist about mathematics and mental illness. Read that first, and you’ll never bother with The Passenger.
But bother you should. Read in proper sequence, the two books add up to the most alarmingly brilliant work of America’s most serious living writer.
The Passenger is primarily Bobby’s book, but it opens with Alice. Or it opens with the end of Alice (dualities, remember). Specifically, her suicide by hanging somewhere near the grounds of Stella Maris, the Wisconsin psychiatric hospital to which she had committed herself several times. After that, we abruptly meet her perpetually mourning brother Bobby on a bedeviling salvage dive that puts the book’s plot into motion. He swims through a sunken airplane full of corpses to find that one of its passengers, along with some equipment, is missing. Soon, he’s harassed by men in suits from an unnamed government agency, his accounts are frozen, his diving partner dies mysteriously, and he goes on the run.
The Passenger is not a thriller, and this series of events and reactions is not at all what the book is about. It’s there because things have to happen in novels. And it’s described here because reviews must say what happens in novels. But the things that happen in The Passenger are cryptic and conspiratorial, and ultimately serve only to instill a sense of justified paranoia. We never learn who the missing passenger is, why he’s missing, or why the government cares. We don’t quite know whether Bobby dove into a high-stakes crime scene or a closely guarded paranormal secret. Is he being harassed because of the dive or because his late father, a Manhattan Project physicist, left his affairs dangerously untidy? What we learn about is Bobby and Alice, their unconsummated incestuous love, and their IQ-haunted family.
In a sense, the siblings were born of the bomb. While their father was instrumental in its creation, their mother worked silently watching radiation meters in an atomic facility in Tennessee. Bobby and Alice’s parents met on the job, dooming brother and sister to forever live in the shadow of an unholy cloud, plagued by genius and guilt and an unrealizable passion. Alice is an off-the-charts mathematics prodigy and ethereal beauty who may be schizophrenic, and she spends her brief adult life checking in and out of Stella Maris. Bobby is a slightly less extraordinary brainiac who takes up race-car driving and then, after his near-fatal crash, salvage diving. If Alice can’t stay away from the grave, Bobby certainly isn’t trying to avoid it.
And we learn about math and physics. With the exception of the inch-perfect, screenplay-like No Country for Old Men (2005), McCarthy’s novels aren’t overly concerned with storyline. He writes about how things function—in this case, from a Maserati to gluons—and where human beings (mostly men) fit in amid the vast clockwork of existence. No other fiction writer creates on so small or so large a canvas. In The Passenger and Stella Maris, we have McCarthy’s ultimate, perhaps final, word on the nature of reality and the human soul. The recondite discussions of quantum mechanics and topos theory that abound are not only earned; they are necessary to the author’s aim. To face head-on the infinitely bizarre and inexplicable nature of the universe is to begin to approach a sober understanding of our place in it.
Bobby gave up pursuing a physics Ph.D. because he had a revelation: “I could do it. Just not at the level where it really mattered.” But he retained enough of an education, usefully, to offer The Passenger’s fullest explication of modern physics when a friend named Asher (an allusion to the bomb) drops by out of the blue to pick Bobby’s brain
about S-Matrix theory and hidden particles. The 10-page scene is crow-barred into the book so awkwardly, it almost feels like a printing mix-up. And the lay reader—which is everyone—will be lost after a few sentences. But for all its clumsiness, the episode leaves us with something critical. Asher asks Bobby whether he really believes in physics. Bobby answers: “I don’t know what that means. Physics tries to draw a numerical picture of the world. I don’t know that it actually explains anything. You can’t illustrate the unknown. Whatever that might mean.” Alice says something complementary in Stella Maris: “Mathematics is ultimately a faith-based initiative. And faith is an uncertain business.”
This is McCarthy’s check on scientism, the secular faith that purports to answer all of life’s meaningful questions through the process of observation, experimentation, equation, and peer review. And McCarthy knows whereof he speaks. Philip Roth once complained about John Updike, “He knows so much, about golf, about porn, about kids, about America. I don’t know anything about anything.” McCarthy knows a lot about a lot—and not golf and porn. He is not just another artist with a dilettantish curiosity about fields beyond the creative. Since the early 1980s, he has been connected to the Santa Fe Institute, the scientific institution in New Mexico that is now his home base and where he is a trustee. He edits books and papers from some of the country’s most accomplished scientists on a broad range of topics. Science and math, by his own admission, have come to occupy him more than literature. Thus, he addresses the faith-vs.-science debate from a much-needed perspective. And that perspective, embodied in both Bobby and Alice, is this: Science and mathematics are vital in telling us how little we can ever understand, and a world so inscrutable makes faith and mysticism at least a viable avenue of contemplation.
This fanatical agnosticism, of course, can make McCarthy seem something of a sneak. And Alice is, too. She tells Dr. Cohen: “The notion that everything is just stuff doesn’t seem to do it for us.” He asks, “Does it do it for you?” Her answer: “That’s the rub, isn’t it.”
It is the rub, indeed. The question of whether everything is just stuff hangs over Alice’s very existence. Since childhood, she’s been subject to hallucinations that she—and McCarthy—doesn’t entirely accept as the mere creations of an imbalanced mind. The central hallucinatory figure is the Thalidomide Kid, a malformed and wisecracking comic goblin who needles Alice about her unsavory love for Bobby and corrals a band of tawdry acts into putting on tragic vaudeville shows for her. The Passenger is broken up with italicized chapters recounting Alice’s episodes with “the Kid,” which makes Alice a living presence in Bobby’s story and in time suggests an otherworldly explanation for Bobby’s missing-passenger. At one point, when the Kid says that he came to Alice’s home by bus, she asks whether the other passengers could see him. “Some could and some couldn’t,” he says. She wants to know what they think when they see him. He responds in part:
I don’t know. Christ. I guess they think I’m a passenger. Of course you could make the case that if they’re passengers then I must be something else. But maybe not. I cant speak for them.
After Alice elects to undergo electric-shock treatment, the Kid and his troupe of performers appear before her burned and furious. “They looked dispirited, sullen, angry. The Kid was pacing up and back. His face was black with soot. The wispy hairs on his head were singed to a stubble and his cloak was smoking.”
The singeing of the Kid is a clever way of calling into question his physical status in relation to the real world. This is further achieved when he pays Bobby a visit toward the end of The Passenger. But we’re not meant to know whether the Kid is a shared sibling hallucination or an autonomous visitor from another plain of existence. We’re only to understand that such questions aren’t ludicrous.
Soon after the Kid’s visit, Bobby flees to an island near Ibiza where he lives out his days in self-imposed isolation. And here we find some of the most sheerly gorgeous writing McCarthy has ever produced.
He walked out along the headlands. In the distance the thunder rolled along the dark horizon with a sound like boxes falling. Unusual weather. Lightening thin and quick. The inland sea. Cradle of the West. A frail candle tottering in the darkness. All of history a rehearsal for its own extinction.
‘All of history a rehearsal for its own extinction.” This is as good a summation of McCarthy’s worldview as you’re likely to find. It’s there in his twin masterpieces Blood Meridian (1985) and The Road (2006), both guided tours of a grotesque hell on earth. And it’s in The Passenger and Stella Maris. Only this time, McCarthy is more explicit about there being some hidden hand guiding us to savagery and ruin. If he can’t wholly dismiss faith and mysticism, it’s because he’s drawn to some interesting ideas about what a world beyond our own may consist of. This is made plain in Stella Maris.
Alice confesses to Dr. Cohen that she had a childhood vision that predated her hallucinations. “A waking dream,” she says. “And I had no reason to believe that what I say did not exist and if the realm was not unknown to us that didn’t make it less threatening but more.” She goes on: “I saw through something like a judas hole into this world where there were sentinels standing at a gate and I knew that beyond the gate was something terrible and that it had power over me.” What was this something? “A being. A presence. And that the search for shelter and for covenant among us was simply to elude this baleful thing of which we were in endless fear and yet of which we had no knowledge.” She says, finally, “I wish I could be who I was before but I never will be.”
McCarthy has toyed with Gnosticism before. His Judge Holden character in Blood Meridian was a kind of demigod seeking to seize the Creator’s powers for himself. But Holden was monstrous, whereas Alice is lovable and sympathetic, a preternaturally beautiful math genius whose intelligence is rendered as a form of tragic illness. Stella Maris is her side of the story, and if she fears the being beyond the gate, we fear it, too. Her working theory on the Kid is that he was sent to distract her—by whom we don’t know—from what she never should have seen in the first place.
Is she speaking for McCarthy? She might be. Her thinking and analysis track closely with his. She offers, for example, a theory to explain why the subconscious communicates with us in images instead of words. This, she says, is because “the unconscious system of guidance is millions of years old, speech less than a hundred thousand.” And it’s precisely this theory McCarthy himself laid out in a 2017 article in Nautilus. Authors don’t like to be tagged with the convictions of their characters, but Alice articulates a whole range of ideas regarding mathematics and the mind in terms almost identical to those used by McCarthy in interviews and discussions with his Santa Fe colleagues. What better way for a brilliantly sneaky 89-year-old Irish-American man to stealthily convey his most challenging views than to put them in the mouth of a beautiful, young, possibly schizophrenic Jewess.
Yes, Jewess. The Passenger and Stella Maris are the most Jewish books McCarthy has ever written. Which is to say, they’re not very Jewish at all. But Bobby, Alice, and both their parents are Jewish. There is no evidence of their ever having been exposed to an inkling of Jewish life or thought. But it’s made unmistakably clear that they are Jews. And this raises a question: Why? The answer is simple. Verisimilitude. McCarthy knows the degree to which Jews are overrepresented in math and science. His friends and colleagues at the Santa Fe institute include or have included theorists such as Murray Gell-Mann, George Zweig, and Lawrence Krauss. He’s well aware of the statistics on Jewish genius. As Alice says to Dr. Cohen, “Jews represent two percent of the population and eighty percent of the mathematicians. If those numbers were even a little more skewed we’d be talking about a separate species.” Some might bristle at the “separate species” remark, but it’s clear McCarthy means it only in reverence.
While The Passenger and Stella Maris are McCarthy’s most brilliant novels, they’re not his best. In Blood Meridian, The Road, and to a lesser extent, No Country for Old Men and All the Pretty Horses (1992), he achieved a perfection of form which is nowhere to be found here. From the impromptu physics lesson of The Passenger to, frankly, the entirety of Stella Maris, these novels don’t behave as novels should.
And yet, that hardly matters. To read these works is to be left with a dark gift as fearsome and unforgettable as Alice’s view through the judas hole. It is the fully fleshed-out vision of a world, from the subatomic to the cosmogonic. To paraphrase McCarthy, all of his oeuvre has been a rehearsal for this.
Photo: United States Department of Energy
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