Major publishing events are rare in our day and age of irreconcilable cultural chasms between left and right. Not many living American writers compel something resembling a consensus on their greatness anymore, and those that do tend to be very old. Thomas Pynchon is one. Cormac McCarthy, now eighty-nine-years old, is another. And he has just published two new novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris, an occurrence of which the reading public should take heed.
After spending some time in obscurity as a writer, McCarthy developed fame in the eighties and nineties with a series of novels – Blood Meridian and the “Border Trilogy” – in which third-person narration predominates. In these novels, his narrative voice focuses on the description of action and rarely on the interior life of his characters. Most of these characters are, in any event, rough-riding men with little education. They face the world through deeds, not streams of consciousness. These deeds are commonly joined with the word “and,” little more. It is usually left to McCarthy’s narrator to then infer the meaning of the events we just encountered or connect them to a larger, universal truth.
In the following passage from his 1994 novel The Crossing, the main character Billy is escaping on horseback from a posse that had just shot his younger brother Boyd. To his luck, a pickup truck carrying Mexican farmworkers is driving past, and without hesitation they offer to help the bloodied child. The rest goes thus:
The horse stamped and rolled its eyes and a man reached and took the reins and halfhitched them about one of the stakes in the truckbed and other hands reached for the boy and some clambered down into the road to help lift him up. Blood was a condition of their lives and none asked what had befallen him or why.
It is all there. Everyone easily notices the Old Testament style, but rather than saints and gods, we encounter simple men who are driven by an instinctive solidarity for those other men who know just how brutish life is in its essence.
If the words of such men are rendered in direct speech at all, they’re often as taciturn as you’d expect. The main character of an earlier novel, All the Pretty Horses, puts it in a way that may represent McCarthy’s own writerly philosophy: “There aint but one truth, said John Grady. The truth is what happened. It aint what come out of somebody’s mouth.” In this telling, the accomplished fact establishes truth. Words are after the fact and often skew the truth more than reveal it. It’s action versus chit chat.
If that is so, then McCarthy’s two new novels represent a return to his origins in the Faulknerite “Southern gothic” in some ways and an overall break in others. The Passenger assembles a cast of outcast characters that harkens back to Suttree (1979). The story doesn’t relentlessly progress toward a gruesome showdown as his novels set in the border region do. It is more episodic and often even quite comical. Dialogue noticeably dominates, too, with many pages in which the narrator doesn’t intervene at all. And in Stella Maris, there is finally nothing but dialogue. Just the transcript of a series of conversations between the schizophrenic twenty-year-old Alicia and her psychiatrist who records his meetings with her on tape. Another fact makes Stella Maris stand out as well: Its main character is a woman. The last time this occurred in one of McCarthy’s novels was in 1968 when he published his second, Outer Dark. There is another resemblance to Outer Dark that emerges soon into the plot of The Passenger and unfolds straight through Stella Maris that may at this point be left for the reader to discover.
The two new novels are companions. The Passenger also features Alicia, and, in the main story, her brother Bobby. We know from the very beginning of The Passenger, which was published over a month before Stella Maris, that Alicia has committed suicide. In the next chapter the scene shifts to Alicia “in the winter of the last year of her life.” We encounter her in conversation with a disfigured dwarf, the “Thalidomide Kid.” He is a figment of her schizophrenic imagination, a constant presence in her life from the moment she turned twelve. From there, each chapter alternates between a scene featuring Alicia and the “Kid” from her adolescence to shortly before her suicide and Bobby’s story, which takes place in 1980, a few years after Alicia’s suicide.
We encounter Bobby first as a salvage diver. He and his friend Oiler are searching the inside of a private plane that has crashed into the Gulf of Mexico and lies on the bottom of the sea just off the coast of Mississippi. The crash site is suspect. They find nine bodies, but a tenth passenger is missing along with the black box and another flight recorder. Bobby and Oiler determine that the victims were dead before the plane sank. Likely foul play. But the newspapers don’t ever report on the crash. Soon men with badges begin to pester Bobby who feels persecuted by shadowy figures. Then Oiler dies. The novel develops a consistent paranoia, which grows with each chapter. Bobby at some point begins to refer to these forces that are haunting him impersonally as “They. Them.” Kline, his private investigator, chuckles that “It’s always a they, isn’t it?”
With this, McCarthy has captured the Zeitgeist. These days, many people feel that “They” are at their throats, be “They” governments, corporations, androgynous non-profit types, or shady supranational operations of unknown allegiance. The same goes for the antagonists of The Passenger. “They” never entirely reveal themselves and seem to come from between the nexus of the state and organized crime. That’s one of the reasons why The Passenger often feels like the 1975 movie of the same name by the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. There the main character, played by Jack Nicholson, is likewise haunted by such unknown forces that drive him to the edge of the world and into oblivion.
There’s also a chance that in McCarthy’s Passenger these forces represent time, which marches on without mercy and threatens to erase all memories of you and me. In some moments it seems as if McCarthy is writing in order to thwart this movement. His narrator speaks of “The abyss of the past into which the world is falling. Everything vanishing as if it had never been.” A few pages earlier, Alicia, whose sections in The Passenger are rendered entirely in cursive, observes that “What you write down becomes fixed. It takes on the constraints of any tangible reality.” This resembles John Grady’s point, but it also contrasts with Berkeley and Kant’s philosophy, both of whom Alicia references by name in Stella Maris and who lead her to question whether “absolute reality” is knowable. Once more, McCarthy’s characters understand that they can only create reality. And he understands that he’s creating a kind of reality through writing. The literary critic Frank Kermode once made a similar point:
The physician Alkmeon observed, with Aristotle’s approval, that men die because they cannot join the beginning and the end. What they, the dying men, can do is to imagine a significance for themselves in these unremembered but imaginable events. One of the ways in which they do this is to make objects in which everything is that exists in concord with everything else, and nothing else is, implying that this arrangement mirrors the dispositions of a creator, actual or possible.
That’s one way to fend off death.
Beside the inescapable fact of his own natural mortality, Bobby’s existence is threatened with erasure by the state. His life, another character cautions, could be “cancelled with the stroke of a pen.” The most concrete threat to his existence occurs when the IRS places a lien on his bank account. Apparently they suspect that he hid an inheritance from the state. Could this prove the answer to Bobby’s paranoia? But he doubts that he is merely under investigation for tax fraud. Something more must be at play. Chapters follow in which Kline muses about the true perpetrator of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He suspects the mob, especially the group around the real-life historical figure Carlos Marcello who makes an appearance in the novel. These are forces that are larger than any one of us and that seem to have divided the spoils among themselves. Whether it’s the CIA, the IRS, the mafia, or whoever, “They” have more power than you and me. Some even refer to themselves as “They” and “Them” for good measure.
Either way, Bobby is not in charge of his own life. McCarthy’s characters regularly face an inescapable fate. Or so it appears. After all, they always knowingly ride toward this fate, often out of the sense that justice needs to be done come hell or high water. In the course of this quest for justice, these characters face up against hired guns, ruthless ranchers, or, in his best work, possibly the devil himself. The state appears on the margins, at most in the form of border patrol officers or corrupt policemen. In the case of his post-apocalyptic novel from 2006, The Road, all civilization has collapsed and with it the state. The father and his son, the two main characters, have to maintain morality purely of their own volition and against insurmountable odds. There is no law to tell them what is right and wrong.
McCarthy’s sensibility is an old-fashioned American folk libertarianism that threatens to suffocate in a caring welfare society. This is exactly why McCarthy’s characters cannot survive in the world of the New Deal. In The Crossing, Billy returns from Mexico and finds America at war against the Axis. He visits an enlistment office where he’s told that “They’re goin to look after you like your own mother.” But the army has no use for Billy after all because he has an irregular heartbeat. At the close of the next novel, Cities of the Plain, Billy lives the life of a bum. He’s not cut out for this new America.
Bobby and Alicia had no choice. They know no other country than this. They are the children of a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project with Oppenheimer and Teller. That’s where he met their mother, which leads Bobby to muse that “he owed his existence to Adolf Hitler. That the forces of history which had ushered his troubled life into the tapestry were those of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the sister events that sealed forever the fate of the West.”
These forces steamrolled over the world as their ancestors had known it. Alicia explains in Stella Maris that her family had owned a farm “just outside of Clinton Tennessee. On the Clinch River. We’d been there since the Civil War.” “By the time I came along,” she goes on, “it was at the bottom of a lake … It was condemned by the US Government. Flattened with bulldozers. In order to build a plant for the enrichment of nuclear fuel.” There is no continuity with the world of her forebears and thus no world she can impart to the child that she says she wanted to have before she gave up on life. The siblings can’t even derive their sense of self from an overarching national identity because, as Bobby puts it, “I don’t even know what a country is … It seems mostly to be an idea.”
This explains why The Passenger and Stella Maris are so different from McCarthy’s mature works and why interiority and especially dialogue prevail over action. The world in which these two new novels are set simply doesn’t allow for the latter. This explanation doesn’t entirely redeem these new books. Blood Meridian and the “Border Trilogy” novels remain aesthetically superior. Stella Maris often reads like philosophy in the guise of fiction. Some of Alicia’s theoretical musings are anticipated almost one-to-one in an essay that McCarthy published in 2017, called “The Kekulé Problem.”
It is when Alicia looks back on a more constant world, a world of truth and divine inspiration, that the classic style of McCarthy’s narrative voice breaks through and that Stella Maris glimmers with beauty. In one chapter, for example, Alicia tells the psychiatrist that she once studied “the mathematics of the violin.” The records show, she says, that “The oldest known violin is an Amati believed to be from 1564 that’s in the Ashmolean at Oxford. The oldest instrument we studied was from 1580 and the latest was probably a German violin from the 1960s. Aside from the angle of the neck they were the same. Nothing had changed. Nothing.” And then she adds that “What’s even more remarkable is that there is no prototype to the violin. It simply appears out of nowhere in all its perfection.” She calls that a “mystery” and imagines that the invention of the violin was a creative act that went somewhere like this:
A small man who went with his son into the stunted forests of the little iceage of fifteenth century Italy and sawed and split the maple trees and put the flitches to dry for seven years and then stood in the slant light of his shop one morning and said a brief prayer of thanks to his creator and then – knowing this perfect thing – took up his tools and turned to its construction. Saying now we begin.
At this point she has to stop talking because the image proves too overwhelming and she cries.
2022, Alfred A. Knopf
383 pp., $30.00
Buy on Bookshop
2022, Alfred A. Knopf
208 pp., $26. 00
Buy on Bookshop