Cormac McCarthy’s Dual, Dark New Offerings
- Emily Mitchell
- November 2, 2022
The Passenger and Stella Maris embrace dystopia with lopsided degrees of success.
At some point while reading Cormac McCarthy’s new novel, The Passenger, I began, without really intending it, to imagine the author and his characters performing certain tasks from daily life that the characters would never have to do but presumably the author might. Going to the supermarket. Cleaning the bathroom. Taking the recycling out. I envisioned a short story along the lines of Lydia Davis’ brilliantly funny “Kafka Cooks Dinner” from her collection Varieties of Disturbance, in which the title character, stymied by despair and self-disgust, frets endlessly about what to serve his fiancée.
My story, “Cormac in Suburbia,” could be a similar application of an author’s signature style — in this case, McCarthy’s lyrical bleakness, his KJV-inflected polysyndeton, his intentional archaisms — to the kind of ordinary activities that would undercut it and show both its possibilities and limitations.
I didn’t end up writing it. Or, I haven’t done so yet. But at least the concept kept me amused for the duration of my reading experience. Which is somewhat more than I can say about The Passenger.
I’m exaggerating, but not much. To my surprise, as a longtime though ambivalent enthusiast of McCarthy’s fiction, reading The Passenger was a grind. The book contains a hodgepodge of disparate concerns: racecar driving, deep-sea diving, the JFK assassination, the legacy of the Manhattan Project, and the delusions of schizophrenia. There’s even a bit of incest thrown in for good measure. Not only do these issues never resolve in any satisfying way, they don’t even appear to have much to do with one another.
The novel’s protagonist, Bobby Western, is the son of one of the scientists who built the first atomic bomb. A grad-school drop-out, he is mired in perpetual mourning for his beautiful and brilliant sister, Alicia, who killed herself years earlier and with whom he was in love.
Bobby, a salvage diver in New Orleans, gets in more acute trouble after he is hired to search for survivors of a plane crash and finds that one of the passengers listed on the manifest is missing, along with the flight recorder. There’s a wonderful moment of dark frisson when Bobby and his fellow diver figure out the most plausible explanation for what they are seeing: Someone on board knew what was going to happen and took measures to survive and escape.
It’s the kind of dizzying portal to the diabolical that McCarthy’s work offers at its best. But that tension dissipates almost immediately. Bobby — suddenly hounded by agents who may or may not be from the FBI — neither pursues the mystery nor takes flight. Instead, he maunders around the city, hangs out with an odd assortment of friends, and lets the net of some unspecified but powerful organization (heavily implied to be the U.S. government) close around him.
He visits his grandmother. He visits the sanatorium where Alicia lived right before she died. His bank account is embargoed, and his car is impounded. These things are discussed in ominous terms with the lawyer he hires, though it appears this entire unfortunate circumstance could’ve been avoided if he’d just, um…paid his inheritance taxes? Eventually, Bobby flees abroad, though his ultimate fate does not provide the dramatic crisis the novel seemed to have been building toward.
Still, The Passenger is not without its virtues. McCarthy does sentences like no one else. And there are truly luminous moments, including a beautifully poignant scene in which Bobby’s friend, a trans woman named Debussy Fields, tells the story of her transition. There is also the curious inclusion of John Sheddan, the author’s real-life friend from Knoxville, on whom McCarthy’s character Gene Harrogate, from his semi-autobiographical novel, Suttree, is said to have been based.
Finally, there are intriguing, disturbing chapters in italics interspersed throughout which portray the last year of Alicia’s life via her interactions with the beings she hallucinates. These include a small person known as the Thalidomide Kid and a woman called Miss Vivian, who worries about what babies’ crying means vis-à-vis human existence (conclusion: nothing good). There is also an unfortunate, though fortunately brief, hallucination of a minstrel show.
The book just doesn’t add up to more than the sum of its good and bad parts. Other reviewers have had mixed responses to The Passenger. John Jeremiah Sullivan was scathing in the New York Times, while Carolyn Kellogg in the Los Angeles Times felt it was “almost perfect.” In the Washington Post, Ron Charles warned potential readers: Prepare to be baffled.
But McCarthy is publishing a second novel in early December: Stella Maris, a companion piece to The Passenger. Not all those who’ve written about the two novels have agreed on their worthiness. But for my money, the second book succeeds brilliantly where the first does not. It is by far the better of the two.
Stella Maris centers on the same characters and situation as its predecessor. Yet where The Passenger lurches around unsteadily, Stella Maris is powerfully condensed and streamlined, a shark of a novel. It consists solely of transcripts of the therapy sessions undertaken by Alicia Western during her final stint in the Stella Maris sanatorium before her death. It takes place, therefore, some years prior to The Passenger.
During her sessions, Alicia and her psychiatrist discuss a range of things. They talk about the history of mathematics and category theory, which is Alicia’s field. They talk about her hallucinations and whether they are merely illusions or something more. They talk about her difficult personal history and troubling inheritance. Unlike in The Passenger, this heterogeneity comes together to create a coherent experience of foreboding. Eventually, she admits to — and describes — being in love with her brother. This confession forms the denouement of the plot, inasmuch as this novel can be said to have one.
Alicia Western is the first female protagonist McCarthy has ever written, and there’s something satisfying about what an unrepentant asshole she is. She mocks and snipes at her interlocutor, referring to him and other clinic staff as “the help.” At one point, she tells him that only numerical ability constitutes true intelligence, and people who don’t understand advanced math can only be condescended to by those who do.
You can see McCarthy daring you to reject Alicia for not being nice enough. On the other hand, her abrasiveness, unwavering intellectual self-confidence, and utter lack of concern for others’ feelings make her so unrepresentative of typical female experience that it feels like an evasion.
It’s also a bit disappointing that she is both a genius and a blonde bombshell, traits that generally only co-occur in action-movie heroines. Would Alicia have been unworthy of love and mourning if she were merely one of these? Or neither? It seems McCarthy cannot (or has not yet been able to) imagine an ordinary woman being worthy of the same sustained attention as the largely ordinary men — John Grady Cole, Sheriff Bell, The Road’s nameless father — who usually serve as his protagonists.
All that aside, however, Stella Maris is gripping and absorbing, a successful spell. How is this possible? So much of what Alicia talks about is beyond the reader’s ken, and McCarthy wisely doesn’t waste time trying to explicate topos theory for a general audience. But why does this version of the story hum with energy and portent instead of sloshing around, like The Passenger, in a pit of its own making?
It has to do with how each novel produces narrative tension and the worldview that tension encodes. What is imagined to loom over and threaten Bobby is not the same as what looms over and threatens Alicia. The former ends up striking the reader as overblown. The latter carries you away on a current of exhilarating dread.
Even more than other writers who’ve had long, prolific careers, McCarthy is known for the strong, consistent outlook that informs his fiction. (This outlook has been described by critic Leo Daugherty as Manichean.) For McCarthy, the world is hopelessly malign and fallen. If there ever was a benevolent creator God, he has long abandoned us to the whims of malevolent sub-deities. All that is left are sparks of goodness buried inside human hearts that sometimes fleetingly emerge (The Passenger describes the character Debussy Fields as such a spark). Nor can the world be reformed. The best we can hope for is to awaken to the truth of our profound evil and live in a clear-eyed way with this knowledge.
You could also say McCarthy’s view is Hobbesian: Beneath the veneer of civilization, people are ready to turn on one another. Our fundamental nature inclines us to violence and strife. Give humans an opening, and we’ll go scalping and cannibalizing one another until someone brains us with a rock to make us stop. It is these stark convictions that make McCarthy unable or uninterested in writing about domestic or organizational life, why the idea of his characters doing household chores is so incongruous and funny.
In each of his novels, this same dreadful view manifests, but it does so via different objects. Blood Meridian, for instance, tells the story of the Glanton Gang, a group of Anglo scalp hunters who operated in Texas in the 1840s. It shows U.S. westward expansion to have been a disaster, a massive unleashing of violence and barbarity rather than the march of progress. It’s crucial that, in writing this fiction, McCarthy hewed close to his source text, Samuel Chamberlain’s first-person account of his activities with the gang, My Confession.
Because McCarthy was bringing news of things that really happened but had been largely ignored, Blood Meridian acts as a strong antidote to the self-congratulatory mythologizing of American history. The terrifying catastrophe of colonization and dispossession actually merits the past being seen this way; the horror of the subject is commensurate with the horror McCarthy ascribes to it. The same might be said about the aftermath of nuclear holocaust in The Road.
But in some of his other works, this view is not nearly so illuminating, obscuring more than it reveals. In No Country for Old Men, the same horror and sense of threat is assigned to the violence of the drug war on the U.S. southern border. It manifests most potently in the fictive serial killer Anton Chighur. But here, where the prevailing mythology agrees with McCarthy already, it’s far less interesting to ascribe implacable, unalterable badness to people and communities caught in actual material and historical circumstances.
The violence at the border is not inexplicable but the product of real policies, circumstances, and decisions. But No Country uses that violence in a way that shades into xenophobia, especially when you encounter Sheriff Bell’s monologues about how much better things used to be, how terrible the world outside his small town has supposedly become. The same might be said at times about McCarthy’s other novels set along the U.S.-Mexico border. And it’s certainly exemplified by “The Counselor,” the 2013 feature film for which McCarthy wrote the script.
In these two latest novels, the requisite underlying dread comes from the presence of nuclear weapons in the world, from the constant threat of destruction that has loomed over humanity since 1945. The protagonists in both books inherit the burden of understanding this from their father. But in The Passenger, the implications of this burden don’t play out. And the other threat that emerges — the shady agents harassing Bobby — is too minor for this Gnostic drama.
This is not to suggest that the U.S. government isn’t a menace to anyone. Obviously, it is, or can be. But to treat it as a conduit of unbridled malevolence aimed against an educated white man veers awfully close to the kind of deep-state-conspiracy theorizing that has a lot of people besides McCarthy dangerously in its thrall just now.
By contrast, in Stella Maris, Alicia is directly wired into the terror and madness of the reality of nuclear weapons. She is destroyed by it — first her mind, then her body. Midway through the story, she describes peering through “a judas hole” in the fabric of the world “where there were sentinels standing at a gate and…beyond the gate was something terrible and…it had power over me.”
Alicia calls this presence beyond the gate “the Archatron.” All human activity is, she thinks, an attempt to keep the thing, whatever it is, at bay. Ultimately, this attempt is futile. But we must try anyway to “search for shelter and for covenant,” which is precisely what she has done by coming to Stella Maris, seeking care and understanding against the odds.
The consistency of his view and diversity of situations to which he applies it explain why Cormac McCarthy, in his fiction, swings so wildly between the extremes of the riveting and the risible, even in the same work. When he succeeds, it is astounding. When he doesn’t, he face-plants. I think he has done the former in Stella Maris and the latter in The Passenger. Given the novels’ ambition, this is an admirable rate of success.
Emily Mitchell is the author of a novel, The Last Summer of the World, and a collection of stories, Viral. She serves as fiction editor of New England Review and teaches at the University of Maryland.