16 years have passed since Cormac McCarthy released his post-apocalyptic masterpiece The Road, took home the Pulitzer Prize, and then mysteriously vanished into thin air. Now, at the age of 89, he has written two new books: The Passenger, which is out now, and its companion novella Stella Maris, which will be available in December. Together, they create an intriguing, though uneven, coda rather than the apex of McCarthy’s illustrious career.
Page-turners can be found in some of McCarthy’s most well-known books, but that is not the topic at hand. These books are designed to defy the reader, withhold information, and defy all attempts to satisfy them. McCarthy chooses time and time again to snuff out whatever desire the reader could have for either narrative or tale, and you can almost feel him strutting a little.
Stella Maris and The Passenger take place ten years apart and are each told by a different sibling. The Passenger is set in the 1980s and is told by Bobby Western, a reticent tough guy with a keen interest in theoretical physics who used to be a race driver and now works as a salvage diver. The 1970s provide the setting for Stella Maris, which is told by math prodigy and diagnosed schizophrenia Alicia Western. Their last name is Western because that is what they represent—the post-World War II western society, with all its affluence, order, and moral ambiguities. Bobby in The Passenger is in love with Alicia, who has passed away. In Stella Maris, Bobby, who is unconscious, is the love of Alicia’s life.Both claim they never had a sexual relationship, but McCarthy leaves you with just enough room to doubt that.
Don’t believe the publishers when they say that The Passenger and Stella Maris can both be read alone. Without Stella Maris’ explanations of some of The Passenger’s most interesting plot points, the novel would be frustratingly vague, and without The Passenger’s enlivened philosophical discourse, Stella Maris would be as dry as a book. It would be crowded and depressing to read them separately.
The Passenger isn’t exactly a quick read on its own. McCarthy calmly declines to either solve or, in fact, present true suspects for any of his puzzles, despite the book’s hints at a pulpy thriller scenario involving a passenger going missing from a wrecked plane and shadowy government organisations hunting down Bobby Western. They appear to be there only to produce the paranoid muck that Western (as McCarthy repeatedly refers to Bobby) must wade through while he interacts and engages in Socratic discussions with a variety of interesting personalities.
Western addresses the issue of whether there is a feminine soul or a God with a trans woman. He discusses the tragedy of beauty with a magician who has now become a private investigator. Moreover, Western delves into the core themes of these two novels—the atom bomb, quantum mechanics, and the question of whether reality can be known—with a character who is a complete blank slate. In fact, this character is so offensively blank that it almost feels like McCarthy is staring us in the face and daring us to call him on it.
It’s acceptable to state that we didn’t evolve in the quantum realm, which is why we can’t fully understand it, says Western. (McCarthy continues his practise of omitting apostrophes and quote marks.) “However, Darwin’s puzzle is the genuine one. How can we learn the hard lessons that don’t matter for our survival?
Western approaches his comprehension of this mystery sincerely. He and Alicia are the offspring of one of the atom bomb’s inventors, and they were raised with the awareness that, like everyone else in the post-World War II west, their wealth and good fortune are due to an atrocity that might have prevented a greater horror. They both received a physics education from their father, and they are both acutely aware of the implications of current physics for reality: how it reveals that reality does not conform to our expectations and that the cosmos is more unstable and unsettling than we previously believed.
In response to this information, Western briefly considered a career in physics before dropping the topic. He ultimately decided he was not nearly skilled enough to perform truly valuable physics. Prior to failing her class, Alicia makes the decision to major in pure mathematics because, in her opinion, algebra cannot address the question of what reality is because it has no verifiable reality distinct from human thought. The inference is that either the effort has destroyed Alicia’s head or that only a shattered mind could seek to do so in the first place. Alicia’s objective is to try to hold the reality of what modern physics and pure mathematics tell her totally in her mind.
Alicia makes sporadic appearances in The Passenger. The book begins with her suicide, and in flashbacks, we see her talking to the Thalidomide Kid—a scruffy carnival barker-type character with flippers for hands—and all of his cronies. (These hallucinations are incredibly tiresome, it must be mentioned.) But it’s not until Stella Maris, which is entirely composed of Alicia’s chats with her psychiatrist in the final year of her life, that she takes centre stage.
After the lushness of The Passenger’s deep, eerie atmosphere, Stella Maris is pleasantly, startlingly stark. While The Passenger is set in New Orleans during the summer, Stella Maris is set in the bitterly cold Midwest during the winter. The grandiose and convoluted plotlines from The Passenger about the JFK assassination serving as a cover for the mob killing RFK and hidden treasure stockpiles buried in a deceased grandmother’s cellar are also gone. McCarthy has removed all the flesh from Stella Maris, leaving only the bare bones—the subject matter he is genuinely interested in discussing.
The bone, it turns out, is more pure math and theoretical physics, the cosmic problems they provoke, and the creative labour required to think them out.
Alicia says to her shrink, “I knew what my brother did not.” “That there has always been an uncontained horror lurking beneath the surface of the earth. that a profound and eternal demonum exists at the centre of reality. The demonium is the mysterious emptiness at the centre of quantum physics.
Stella Maris is refreshingly, startlingly sharp in comparison to the richness of The Passenger’s deep, frightening atmosphere. Stella Maris takes place in the icy Midwest during the winter, in contrast to The Passenger’s summer setting in New Orleans. The grandiose and complicated themes from The Passenger, such as the JFK murder being used as a pretext for the mob to kill RFK and secret treasure caches buried in a dead grandmother’s cellar, have been dropped. McCarthy has stripped Stella Maris of all its layers, leaving only the essentials—the topic in which he is actually interested.
The key issue, according to her, is not how you perform the arithmetic but rather how the unconscious performs it. Why is it, by all appearances, more adept than you are? After working on a problem, you set it aside for a bit. But the problem persists. At lunchtime, it returns. Alternatively, while you’re bathing. It commands: Look at this. How do you feel? You then ponder why the shower is so chilly. maybe the soup. Does this include math? It is, I’m afraid. How is it performing? (Punctuation added on own.) Without altering the meaning in the slightest, you could insert a sentence about math writing there.
Not how you do the math, but how does the unconscious do it, she claims, is the fundamental question. “How is it that it’s clearly better than you are at it? A problem is worked on, then set aside for a while. However, it persists. At lunch, it comes back. Or even while you’re showering. Look at this, it commands. Which do you believe? Afterward, you ponder why the shower is so chilly. also the soup. Is this a math problem? Unfortunately, it is. How is it progressing? (Original punctuation.) That paragraph can be amended to include writing for arithmetic without significantly altering its meaning.
He explains what it means when he says that our perceptions shape our reality: “In the beginning there was nothing. The novae are softly bursting. complete darkness The comets that are passing by and the stars. Everything is at most alleged. dark fires like the hellfires. Nothingness and silence. Night. In a cosmos without an end, black suns shepherd the planets across it, rendering the idea of space meaningless. for lack of an idea to contrast it with. The concise and solitary phrases’ rat-a-tat-tat rhythm; the simple richness of the word “supposed being” in contrast to the garish vision of infernal black flames and quiet black planets McCarthy is so talented that she makes it seem simple.