Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger, his first novel in a decade, asks more questions than it answers. In that sense it’s more like his 1985 masterpiece Blood Meridian, which Ridley Scott and others have tried and failed to film, than his more accessible 2005 novel No Country for Old Men, which the Coen brothers made into an Oscar-winning movie.
Is it worth reading? Absolutely. McCarthy’s diamond prose takes us to a place where every word matters, every thought counts, every action has consequences. He forges the most unlikely page turners: one has little idea of what is happening but must keep reading in the hope of finding out.
It is 1980. The main character, 37-year-old Bobby Western, is a salvage diver. We first meet him swimming through a small passenger jet that has crashed and sunk in 12 metres of water. “The people sitting in their seats, their hair floating. Their mouths open, their eyes devoid of speculation … He kicked his way slowly down the aisle above the seats, his tanks dragging overhead. The faces of the dead inches away.” Bobby sees the seven passengers, the pilot and the co-pilot, and returns to the surface. A day or so later, two unnamed men, secret service agents perhaps, arrive at his New Orleans apartment and tell him there was an eighth passenger on the plane.
This is the tantalising set-up. Who is the missing passenger? How did they survive the crash rather than drown with the others? Bobby tells the men, though he suspects they know, that there are two other missing pieces: the black box and the pilot’s bag. Yet the “good-sized question”, as one of the men puts it, of the missing passenger is not the most important in the book.
That question, in this reader’s view, is how far Bobby took his love for his now dead sister, Alicia, who was seven years his junior, and how far she took her love for him. Bobby remembers watching Alicia playing the role of Medea. “She was 13. He was in his second year of graduate school at Caltech and watching her that summer evening he knew that he was lost. His heart in his throat. His life no longer his.”
It’s for this reason, among others, that after reading The Passenger, it’s illuminating to read McCarthy’s next novel, Stella Maris, which comes out next month. It is not so much a sequel as a coda: its central character, Alicia, is the dark heart of each book.
The Passenger opens with a chapter, all in italics, in which a woman “in the winter of the last year of her life” is visited by a small man she calls the “Thalidomide Kid”. His arms look like flippers. His head is bald and scarred, “like he’d been brought into the world with ice-tongs”, and he speaks in riddles.
These italicised chapters recur, revealing the woman is 20-year-old Alicia, who is having hallucinations. Stella Maris, set in 1972, makes this clearer. Stella Maris is a psychiatric hospital in Chicago and the entire novel is a series of consultations between Alicia, who is a paranoid schizophrenic, and an unnamed psychiatrist. “I don’t understand what that means,” is the doctor’s common response to Alicia’s observations.
Readers may feel the same way. All McCarthy’s books must be read with a dictionary to hand. In the case of these two new novels, which arm-wrestle with physics and mathematics, a finger on Wikipedia is also required. Bobby and Alicia are geniuses: they have read, understood and argued with the work of physicists, mathematicians and philosophers from Aristotle onwards.
This genius, with all its waywardness, runs in the family. Their late father worked on the Manhattan Project. One recurring question is whether he felt shame or guilt at incinerating the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When a friend asks Bobby if his father was “off his rocker ... To make bombs to blow everybody up”, Bobby replies, “I guess that’s a reasonable question.”
This question – and many others – emerge in conversations Bobby has with acquaintances as he tries to keep one step ahead of the unidentified men interested in the unidentified missing passenger. There are discursions into pivotal moments in American history such as the Vietnam War. The one on the assassination of John F. Kennedy is fascinating.
Despite the novel’s often bleak countenance, there is humour, including when McCarthy riffs off his earlier work, especially Blood Meridian and his 2006 dystopia The Road.
The process of reading McCarthy, as pleasurably challenging as it is, reminds me of Donald Rumsfeld’s known unknowns. In book after book, the author suggests life is predetermined and that we are but specks in the cosmos. Now he takes a further step. Bobby and Alicia believe that suicide is the second-best option. The best option, unavailable to them, is not to have existed. “She wanted to disappear,” Bobby says of his sister. “Well, that’s not quite right. She wanted not to have ever been here in the first place. She wanted to not have been, Period.”
That option is also unavailable to 89-year-old Cormac McCarthy. That’s a blessing for readers; one that will outlive his own speck of time.
Picador, 400pp, $45
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 22, 2022 as "The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy".
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