Imagine if God—or Gary Larson—had an enormous mayonnaise shaped jar at his disposal and stuffed it chock full of the collective consciousnesses of the greatest modern philosophers, psychoanalysts, neuroscientists, mathematicians, physicists,
The eighty-nine-year-old McCarthy, perhaps America’s greatest living novelist, released these companion books in 2022 after a sixteen-year hiatus that followed publication of The Road, the 2006 postapocalyptic sensation that explored familiar Cormac McCarthy themes in a very different genre, employing literary techniques strikingly different from his previous works, and in the process finding a whole new audience. The same might be said, to some degree, of the novel that preceded it just a year earlier, No Country for Old Men, another clear break from his past that was after all a radical departure for readers of say, The Border Trilogy, and his magnum opus, Blood Meridian, which to my mind is not only a superlative work but truly one of the finest novels of the twentieth century.
Full disclosure: I have read all of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, as well as a play and a screenplay that he authored. To suggest that I am a fan would be a vast understatement. My very first McCarthy novel was The Crossing, randomly plucked from a grocery store magazine rack while on a family vacation. That was 2008. I inhaled the book and soon set out to read his full body of work. The Crossing is actually the middle volume in The Border Trilogy, preceded by All the Pretty Horses and followed by Cities of the Plain, which collectively form a near- Shakespearean epic of the American southwest and the Mexican borderlands in the mid-twentieth century, which yet retain a stark primitivism barely removed from the milieu of Blood Meridian, set a full century earlier. The author’s style, in these sagas and beyond, has at times by critics been compared with both Faulkner and Hemingway, both favorably and unfavorably, but McCarthy’s voice is distinctive, and hardly derivative. There is indeed the rich vocabulary of a Faulkner or a Styron, that add a richness to the quality of the prose even as it challenges readers to sometimes seek out the dictionary app on their phones. There is also a magnificent use of the objective correlative, made famous by Hemingway and later in portions of the works of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, which evokes powerful emotions from inanimate objects. For McCarthy, this often manifests in the vast, seemingly otherworldly geography of the southwest. McCarthy also frequently makes use of Hemingway’s polysyndetic syntax that adds emphasis to sentences through a series of conjunctions. Most noticeable for those new to Cormac McCarthy is his omission of most traditional punctuation, such as quotation marks, which often improves the flow of the narrative even as it sometimes lends to a certain confusion in long dialogues between two characters that span several pages.
The Passenger opens with the prologue of a Christmas day suicide that must be recited in the author’s voice as an underscore to the beauty of his prose:
It had snowed lightly in the night and her frozen hair was gold and crystalline and her eyes were frozen cold and hard as stones. One of her yellow boots had fallen off and stood in the snow beneath her. The shape of her coat lay dusted in the snow where she’d dropped it and she wore only a white dress and she hung among the bare gray poles of the winter trees with her head bowed and her hands turned slightly outward like those of certain ecumenical statues whose attitude asks that their history be considered. That the deep foundation of the world be considered where it has its being in the sorrow of her creatures. The hunter knelt and stogged his rifle upright in the snow beside him … He looked up into those cold enameled eyes glinting blue in the weak winter light. She had tied her dress with a red sash so that she’d be found. Some bit of color in the scrupulous desolation. On this Christmas day.
With a poignancy reminiscent of the funeral of Peyton Loftis, also a suicide, in the opening of William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness, the reader here encounters whom we later learn is Alicia Western, one of the two central protagonists in The Passenger and its companion volume, who much like Peyton in Styron’s novel haunts the narrative with chilling flashbacks. Ten years have passed when, on the very next page, we meet her brother Bobby, a salvage diver exploring a submerged plane wreck who happens upon clues that could put his life in jeopardy among those seeking something missing from that plane. Bobby is a brilliant intellect who could have been a physicist, but instead spends his life chasing down whatever provokes his greatest psychological fears. In this case, the terror of being deep underwater has driven him to salvage work in the oceans. Bobby is also a rugged and resourceful man’s man, a kind of Llewelyn Moss from No Country for Old Men, but with a much higher I.Q. Finally, Bobby, now thirty-seven years old, has never recovered from the death of his younger sister, with whom he had a close, passionate—and possibly incestuous—relationship.
Also integral to the plot is their now deceased father, a physicist who was once a key player in the Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bombs that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their first names—Alicia and Bobby—seem to be an ironic echo of the “Alice and Bob” characters that are used as placeholders in science experiments, especially in physics. Their surname, Western, could be a kind of doomed metaphor for the tragedy of mass murder on a scale never before imagined that has betrayed the promise of western civilization in the twentieth century and in its aftermath.
A real sense of doom, and a mounting paranoia, grips the narrative in general and Bobby in particular, in what appears to be a kind of mystery/thriller that meanders about, sometimes uncertainly. The cast of characters are extremely colorful, from a Vietnam veteran whose only regret from the many lives he brutally spent while in-country are the elephants that he exploded with rockets from his gunship just for fun, to a small-time swindler with a wallet full of credit cards that don’t belong to him, and a bombshell trans woman with a heart of gold. Some of these folks are like the sorts that turn up in John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat, but on steroids, and more likely to suffer an unpredictable death.
But it is Alicia who steals the show in flashback fragments that reveal a stunningly beautiful young woman whose own brilliance in mathematics, physics, and music overshadows even Bobby. She seems to be schizophrenic, plagued by extremely well-defined hallucinations of bedside visitors who could be incarnates of walk-ons from an old-time circus sideshow, right out of central casting. The most prominent is the “Thalidomide Kid”—replete with the flippers most commonly identified with those deformities—who engages her as interlocutor with long-winded, fascinating, and often disturbing dialogue that can run to several pages. Alicia has been on meds, and has checked herself into institutions, but in the end, she becomes convinced both that her visitors are real and that she herself does not belong in this world. But is Alicia even human? There are passing hints that she could be an alien, or perhaps from another universe.
There’s much more, including an episode where “The Kid,” Alicia’s hallucination (?) takes a long walk on the beach with Bobby. This is surprising, if only because McCarthy has long pilloried the magical realism that frequently populates the novels of Garcia Márquez or Haruki Murakami. Perhaps “The Kid” is no hallucination, after all? In any event, much like a Murakami novel—think 1Q84, for example—there are multiple plot lines in The Passenger that go nowhere, and the reader is left frustrated by the lack of resolution. And yet … and yet, the characters are so memorable, and the quality of the writing is so exceptional, that the cover when finally closed is closed without an ounce of regret for the experience. And at the same time, the reader demands more.
The “more” turns out to be Stella Maris, the companion volume that is absolutely essential to broadening your awareness of the plot of The Passenger. Stella Maris is a mental institution that Alicia—then a twenty-year-old dropout from a doctoral program in mathematics—has checked herself into one final time, in the very last year of her life, and so a full decade before the events recounted in The Passenger. She has no luggage, but forty thousand dollars in a plastic bag which she attempts to give to a receptionist. Bobby, in those days a race car driver, lies in a coma as the result of a crash. He is not expected to recover, but Alicia refuses to remove him from life support. The full extent of the novel is told solely in transcript form through the psychiatric sessions of Alicia and a certain Dr. Cohen, but it is every bit a Socratic dialogue of science and philosophy and the existential meaning of life—not only Alicia’s life, but all of our lives, collectively. And finally, there is the dark journey to the eschatological. Alicia—and I suppose by extension Cormac McCarthy—doesn’t take much stock in a traditional, Judeo-Christian god, which has to be a myth, of course. At the same time, she has left atheism behind: there has to be something, in her view, even if she cannot identify it. But most terrifying, Alicia has a certainty that there lies somewhere an undiluted force of evil, something she terms the “Archatron,” that we all resist, even if there is a futility to that resistance.
I consider myself an intelligent and well-informed individual, but reading The Passenger, and especially Stella Maris, was immeasurably humbling. I felt much as I did the first time that I read Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and even the second time that I read Gould’s Book of Fish, by Richard Flanagan. As if there are minds so much greater than mine that I cannot hope to comprehend all that they have to share, but yet I can take full pleasure in immersing myself in their work. To borrow a line from Alicia, in her discussion of Oswald Spengler in Stella Maris, we might say also of Cormac McCarthy: “As with the general run of philosophers—if he is one—the most interesting thing was not his ideas but just the way his mind worked.”