No regular reader of Cormac McCarthy will be surprised to find that The Passenger begins with a corpse. Or two corpses, really, one of which has gone missing. The one we see, in the italicized, single-page prologue with which the book begins, is of a frozen golden-haired girl found hanging “among the bare gray poles of the winter trees.” Her name is Alicia Western, and she’s dressed in white, with a red sash that makes her easy to spot against the snow, a “bit of color in the scrupulous desolation.” It is Christmas 1972, a forest near the Wisconsin sanitarium where the twenty-year-old has checked herself in—a place she’s been before.
She’s a math prodigy, the daughter of a man who worked on the Manhattan Project, but she’s also been visited since the age of twelve by an apparition she calls the Thalidomide Kid, a restlessly pacing figure three feet tall and with flippers instead of hands, who to her is neither dream nor hallucination but “coherent in every detail.” The Kid often checks up on her, talking and teasing and goading, and knows her every thought and weakness. She understands that he’s not real, yet she also believes in his separate existence, a being “small and frail and brave…[and] ashamed” of his body’s spectacle. But he doesn’t visit her alone. Usually he brings some friends, the ones Alicia calls her “entertainers,” an old man in a “clawhammer” coat, say, or “a matched pair of dwarves.” Her doctors have diagnosed her as a paranoid schizophrenic, some of them think she’s autistic, and according to a personality test she is a “sociopathic deviant.” None of the labels fit.
Then there’s the body we don’t see, the one that should have been found in a private jet forty feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s 1980, and Alicia’s older brother Bobby—a Caltech dropout and onetime race car driver—works as a salvage diver out of New Orleans. He and his partner have been hired to investigate the crash. They cut the plane’s door open and then slowly swim inside, “the faces of the dead inches away,” their hair floating along with their coffee cups up toward the ceiling. Pilot and copilot plus seven passengers in suits, and it doesn’t take Bobby long to realize that there are a few things missing. No pilot’s flight bag, no black box, and the navigation panel has been pulled from the instrument board. Their firm will be paid with an untraceable money order, but later that day Bobby finds two men with badges outside his apartment. Seven passengers, they ask? Are you sure? Because the manifest shows eight, and the agents’ questions confirm his suspicions. The plane’s door latch may have been intact before his partner’s oxyarc torch sliced it open, but somebody else, somebody alive, has been in and out of that sunken jet before them.
We’ll never learn who that passenger was, or what brought the plane down. I’ll admit to some unsatisfied curiosity about that, but it didn’t take long to realize that neither Bobby nor I was going to get any answers. The missing passenger, the eighth man, is a MacGuffin, and he’s not the passenger the title refers to. Bobby is. The two words don’t share an etymology, but a passenger is essentially passive. A passenger gets borne along, not in control of the destination, not driving or steering or deciding. And Bobby’s driving days are done, though he still owns a Maserati and sometimes takes it on the road. They’ve been done ever since he crashed his Lotus in a Formula Two race and went into a coma—ever since he came out of it to find that his sister was dead.
Now he dives. The money is good and so is the adrenaline; as Alicia tells her shrink, Bobby was never afraid of heights or speed, but the depths, oh yes. So he dives and he drinks, a French Quarter life with no shape beyond the moment, until that plane goes down and he begins to wait for what will come. That’s when the surprises begin. The corpses grab you, but there’s much more here to hold you: a troubled family history on the one hand and a complicated, enveloping, exhilarating formal drama on the other.
So far I’ve presented McCarthy’s new work as if it were a single narrative, one that moves from Alicia’s death to Bobby’s present life, when those agents’ questions finally make him skip town to live off what wasn’t yet called the grid. McCarthy has, however, published two books this fall, The Passenger at the end of October and Stella Maris in early December, and some of the quotations above come from the latter, named after the psychiatric hospital where Alicia goes to die. The two books are as intimately related as, well, brother and sister. And as different too. They illuminate each other, and yet the relation between them is no easier to define than one between actual breathing people. The Passenger is expansive, apparently plot-driven, yet also oddly and pleasurably digressive, full of Bobby’s conversations with friends, one of them a transsexual named Debussy Fields who headlines a drag show while saving up for her operation, and another a private detective with odd ideas about the Kennedys. Stella Maris is far more rigorously structured, and after its first page entirely in dialogue: transcripts of Alicia’s electrifying sessions with her last psychiatrist, Dr. Cohen. The book doesn’t follow her out into the snow, but we always know that’s where she’s going; we can’t forget, even as we start, that she’s already been dead for almost four hundred pages.
I suppose you could read one without the other, The Passenger in particular. But I can’t imagine that anyone who finishes that book won’t want to go on. Each of them offers different bits of the family story, a detail in one making sense of a moment in the other, as though they were infiltrating each other. Alicia tells her psychiatrist all about the Kid, but the character himself appears only in The Passenger, in a series of italicized and grimly comic interchapters that break the flow of its central narrative. Stella Maris offers a fuller account of Bobby’s racing accident. After he’s spent a few months unconscious the doctors try to get Alicia to pull the plug; she refuses even though she doesn’t believe he’ll live. Each book allows for a more complete understanding of the other, just as meeting actual siblings can; they’ve been conceived in tandem and are semi-detached at most.
Still, I think you have to begin with The Passenger. It raises questions that Stella Maris helps us understand, and though that shorter volume doesn’t precisely answer them, reading it first would seem preemptive. Yet it is in no sense a sequel, and not just because Alicia’s final sessions take place before the other’s 1980s setting. In fact Stella Maris might even take precedence, the dominant partner in this codependent pair. McCarthy apparently delivered a draft of it eight years ago, while The Passenger was still in pieces, and an article in The New York Times notes that his publishers had a lively debate about just how to “package” the work. One volume or two? They’ve made the right choice.
Each book is stuffed with incidents and characters, but neither presents us with a linear history in which the present marches into the future. Instead the further you get the more you fall into the past, into a family chronicle assembled out of fragments, one that stretches back for generations. There’s a maternal grandmother still living outside of Knoxville, where McCarthy himself grew up; she’s mystified by the world her grandchildren inhabit, and puzzled even now by the accidents that got her daughter a World War II job at Oak Ridge. There’s the Princeton scientist who married her, a friend of Oppenheimer and Feynman, who refuses to feel guilty about Hiroshima. Los Alamos, a wrecked airplane in the Tennessee woods, Cremona violins, and the basement of Bobby’s other grandmother in Ohio, where he finds a fortune in gold. Alicia’s work in topology and her private theology predicated on number, singular. Names, lots of them, of great physicists and mathematicians, all of them real, along with some harrowing pages in which she describes what it would be like to drown yourself in Lake Tahoe, where the water is so cold that it’s “probably capable of keeping you alive for an unknown period of time. Hours perhaps, drowned or not,” as you slowly drop toward the bottom. Another diver’s memories of Vietnam, a seemingly abandoned oil rig, and then the fleabag rooms where Alicia waits for the relentlessly punning Kid; “One more,” he tells her, “in a long history of unkempt premises…. The malady lingers on.”
Some of this appears in flashback. Bobby sits in New Orleans reading his sister’s letters and remembers a family funeral and his father’s boyhood house in Akron, the one with the gold. More of it comes in dialogue. Alicia has her entertainers and Bobby his comforters, the friends who pepper him with questions. The most important is John Sheddan, a con man who specializes in phony prescriptions. He says to Bobby that “your inner life is something of a hobby with me,” and also that “every conversation is about the past.” Every question attempts to uncover what nobody wants to say, and with the Western siblings there is just one issue on everybody’s mind. Sheddan tells a drinking buddy that Bobby is in love with his dead sister, and the Kid suggests that Alicia will kill herself because she doesn’t think he’ll ever wake up from his coma—that she can’t survive without the one person who makes her life even remotely bearable.
But there’s more. “We can do whatever we want,” Alicia tells Bobby in The Passenger, and he says in reply, “No…. We cant.” Faulkner’s Quentin Compson wants to sleep with his sister Caddy, to be forever together and alone with her in a place walled off by flames; he doesn’t ask her only because he’s afraid she’ll say yes. Here Alicia proposes it, believing that she and her brother are already all in all to each other, a world and a law sufficient unto themselves. Bobby believes it too, only he’s older and stops himself. That shared desire is present from the first pages of The Passenger, a sense of what must remain unspoken. Stella Maris does speak it, though, and makes it clear how much it has shaped their lives—a longing that stops just short of incest, a consummation that happens not on the page but in the relation between these two books instead.
None of this sounds much like McCarthy. If Bobby and Alicia trail a history behind them, then so does he. I don’t mean biographically—the history that matters here is that of his ten earlier novels, beginning with The Orchard Keeper (1965). He is now in his ninetieth year, and these new books, his first since the Pulitzer-winning The Road (2006), are in all likelihood his last. Yet while they are recognizably his, they don’t distill his earlier achievement, as late work so often does. They expand it. Oh, sure, the bodies; he always needs bodies. Knoxville, check, and the depiction of that city’s lowlife saloons in Suttree (1979) finds an answer in The Passenger’s account of New Orleans. Incest: all right, a brother and a sister did figure in Outer Dark (1968), and it went a lot further than it does here.
But let me use that early novel to suggest how much his work has changed in the half-century since. McCarthy set that impressively creepy book in a Hobbesian wasteland. It’s clearly the American South, yet he never specifies the particular time or place of its action: a land marked not only by incest but also by infanticide, a disemboweling, and a lynch mob. Its narration is at once disjointed and entirely linear, its focus shifting constantly from one character to another but without allowing us a glimpse of their inner lives or attempting to define their motivations. Events succeed one another, and that is all, as if in this ruined world both thought and feeling were irrelevant.
And so it went, in book after book, with McCarthy’s characters remarkable for two things: an utter absence of interiority and also of any meaningful past. We learn nothing about Anton Chigurh, the dark star of No Country for Old Men (2005), except through the way he moves and acts and kills. Judge Holden in Blood Meridian (1985) speaks enough for us to know that he believes that death is the way of the world and that the world belongs to those most willing to deal it out. Of his earlier life—of whatever forces made him—we learn only what the other characters say. We do, admittedly, know about John Grady Cole’s past in Cities of the Plain (1998), the last volume of what’s called the Border Trilogy, or at least we do if we’ve already read All the Pretty Horses (1992). Not that he thinks about it, for what matters is what he can do with a horse or a rope, the practical taciturn knowledge of hand and eye. He walks up to a horse “and leaned against her with his shoulder and lifted her foreleg between his knees and examined the hoof. He ran his thumb around the frog and he examined the hoof wall.” Yet we only know what he sees there because of what he does next, as though action reveals thought. Or rather supplants it.
Even in The Road McCarthy offers no more than a few sentences about its nameless characters’ earlier lives, the ones they had before disaster overtook their world. That vanished time has necessarily set this one in motion; it’s created the ashen land through which they march. But what counts is the ever-forward-rolling stone of now. That is an aesthetic decision, a statement about what matters in his pages; it is also, inevitably, an ethical choice.
The Passenger and Stella Maris are different, and a lot of the fun in reading them comes from watching McCarthy do something new. I can’t imagine a character in one of his earlier novels claiming that “every conversation is about the past.” It’s true that much of what we learn about the Westerns’ shared and separate histories, about the contours of their inner lives, comes not through a dramatized consciousness but in the form of conversation itself. Bobby sits with the detective Kline in Tujague’s on Decatur Street in New Orleans and watches as he
rocked the ice in his glass. You see yourself as a tragic figure.
No I dont. Not even close. A tragic figure is a person of consequence.
Which you are not.
A person of ill consequence. Maybe. I know that sounds stupid. But the truth is I’ve failed everyone who ever came to me for help. Ever sought my friendship.
McCarthy has never used quotation marks or anything like the conventional “he said,” and sometimes one has to backtrack to see who’s talking. But speech forces both Bobby and Alicia into moments of introspection, and at times pushes them into memory. The spoken word becomes a synecdoche for the inner life, the unrepresented but always felt interiority that lies just off the page, and the narrative presence of the past becomes as one with consciousness itself. As to why these books are different, why McCarthy has decided to try something new, I can only speculate. I suspect it has to do with Alicia, that her central presence has made him change things. McCarthy’s women have usually been the weak part of his work. Neither The Road nor Blood Meridian has a single significant female character, and those in the Border Trilogy are little more than stereotypes. Only Rinthy Holme in Outer Dark has anything like a major role, but she doesn’t come up to Alicia’s imaginative weight, and he seems to have approached these new books with a sense of something earlier left undone. “I was planning on writing about a woman for 50 years,” he said in a 2009 interview, and though “I will never be competent enough to do so…at some point you have to try.”
Outer Dark sold badly; all McCarthy’s early novels did. Their violence probably cost him some readers, and so did his oddly principled aesthetic choices. But there was more. Flannery O’Connor famously said about writing in Faulkner’s shadow that “nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.” McCarthy’s did stall, however, and in opening Outer Dark at random I find a description of an old woman “moving in an aura of faint musk, the dusty odor of aged female flesh impervious to dirt as stone is or clay.” Or as Faulkner put it at the start of Absalom, Absalom!, “the rank smell of female old flesh long embattled in virginity.” McCarthy took both the piled adjectives and the whiff of misogyny from his predecessor, and bits of plot as well, along with the sponsorship of Faulkner’s Random House editor, Albert Erskine.
Still, there’s something else going on in those early pages, something powerful. He plays none of the Mississippian’s restless liberating tricks with time and point of view, nor does he share Faulkner’s interest in the history of their region. But he’s far more relentless. His world seems starved of emotion, his characters’ lives unrelieved by any trace of laughter or generosity, of the fellow feeling and civil society that remain even in Faulkner’s darkest books. For some readers that’s an attraction.
McCarthy published steadily, but with few sales and a reluctance to teach he survived for years on foundation grants, including one of the first MacArthur “genius” awards. Many members of that inaugural 1981 group of fellows already had their major work behind them. In his case the foundation bet on the future of a man approaching fifty, and must at the start have wondered if its wager would pay off. McCarthy had moved from Tennessee to West Texas in 1976, and in writing about that new landscape he found a historical depth his earlier work had lacked. Blood Meridian, his fifth novel, appeared in 1985, and now stands high on that decade’s list of major American novels, matched only by White Noise and Beloved. But at the time? It wasn’t reviewed in these pages, and The New York Times buried its review on page 31 of the Sunday book section. Many who picked it up were repelled by its vivid, detailed insistence that violence is the essential condition of American life. It was one thing to encounter D.H. Lawrence’s claim, in Studies in Classic American Literature, that “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” It was another to read a tale of the Old West in which a group of Anglo horsemen who have been hired to kill Apaches will scalp anyone they meet for the sake of the bounty.
Their leader puts his pistol to the head of an old woman and then tells one of his men to collect the “receipt,” turning the “dripping trophy…in the sun the way a man might qualify the pelt of an animal.” Qualify—that’s a good word, startling but exactly right, with the scalp worth $100. The horsemen ride on through the desert, they ride without destination or goal, and are held one day at dusk by the sight of a “distant city very white against the blue and shaded hills,” only to find a barren plain before them in the morning. They ride and they kill, moving across a “lakebed of lava all cracked and reddish black like a pan of dried blood,” killing not only because they can but because by now it’s the only thing they know how to do.
McCarthy’s language has all the richness of the King James Bible, its cadences slow and forever beautiful and forever at odds with the world it describes. It’s a vision of the American West a good bit more likely than anything John Ford ever put on the screen, but though the critical literature on it is now enormous, Blood Meridian sold fewer than 1,500 copies on its first publication. The announced initial printing for each of these new books is 300,000. Something has clearly happened in the meantime.
Or rather two things, not counting Oprah, and the movies, and the prizes—two things internal to the work itself. The first was that McCarthy burned not just the Faulknerese but almost all of the grandiloquence out of his prose, or at least grandiloquence as conventionally defined. Blood Meridian is a jewel-studded crown. Its every phrase seems inevitable, and the tools of its making are wholly at his command.
Afterward McCarthy found a new cadence, and from All the Pretty Horses on his language began to recall Hemingway’s. His rhythms remained biblical, but his sentences became seamless and spare, the burrs rubbed off their smoothly machined surfaces. He had never liked semicolons, but in his later work even commas are rare, and complex sentences almost nonexistent. Instead he typically ties a series of independent clauses together, many of them short: “The day was warm and they washed out their shirts and put them on wet and mounted up and rode on.” Sometimes there’s an inventory, the “burros three or four in tandem atotter with loads of candelilla or furs or goathides or coils of handmade rope fashioned out of lechugilla or the fermented drink called sotol,” but his attention is almost always on the processes of men at work, in which one thing cannot help but follow another. This prose is terse, and mannered, and in its way as extravagant as anything he had written before, with an almost ostentatious absence of ornament. Yet its register summoned not only Hemingway but also the hard-boiled world of a great deal of American popular fiction, and All the Pretty Horses became his first best seller.
The second thing was even more radical. I don’t think McCarthy has ever changed his punishing view of human life. He is Hobbesian still, with the world a war of all against all, and as the judge says in Blood Meridian, “It makes no difference what men think of war…. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone.” Life falls on a flip of a coin, but the killer always calls it and the toss is always rigged. Yet after Blood Meridian McCarthy began to imagine a series of sympathetic protagonists, not just the diverting, loquacious barflies of Suttree but figures whose probity makes them admirable. They are the exceptions in their society, the figures by whom we judge it: John Grady Cole and Billy Parham in the Border Trilogy, the sheriff in No Country for Old Men, the father and the son in The Road, carrying the flame of what they hope will be a future. They give the reader something to hold on to, and yet in doing so they also underline the odd purity of Blood Meridian, in which belief and nihilism are as one. That book wasn’t something McCarthy needed to repeat, but its current critical standing paradoxically rests on and maybe required the commercial success of his later and apparently easier books.
Alicia Western has always known that some malign force lies beyond our customary existence, has sensed a presence to which the rest of us are numb. As a child she caught a glimpse of terror itself, and the Thalidomide Kid claims that’s why she’s so troubled; anyone who had seen such a thing would be troubled, though so would anyone capable of imagining it:
Correct me if I’m wrong but I think I remember a young girl on tiptoes peering through a high aperture infrequently reported upon in the archives. What did she see? A figure at the gate? But that aint the question, is it? The question is did it see her?
Would the world’s evil even bother to take account of such a small and curious being? Of course it would; Judge Holden has his string of tiny victims, after all. The Kid’s words come at the very start of The Passenger, and when I first read them they seemed just a bit of nattering, part of his deliberately annoying spray of words. Nothing here is inconsequential, however, and Alicia comes back to the idea in Stella Maris. She tells her shrink that she once had a waking dream that “was neither waking nor a dream,” a glimpse of an unknown realm “where there were sentinels standing at a gate and I knew that beyond the gate was something terrible and that it had power over me.” All our longing for shelter and community is but an attempt to “elude this baleful thing” of which we walk in fear and yet of which we can have no direct knowledge. Those sentinels pushed her back, away from what no one should see, but though she found the gate just once, that doesn’t mean her vision was false. She’s even given that force a name: the Archatron, a Lovecraftian word of McCarthy’s own coinage.
That sense of a malign but impersonal force at work in the world makes the fact that Alicia’s father worked on the Manhattan Project into something more than backstory; he was present at the Trinity site, when in the light of a thousand suns Oppenheimer thought of a line from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” The Judge himself could not have put it better, and by now Alicia has an idea about just how the Archatron works and where its wickedness comes from. “I think you have to have language to have craziness,” she tells Dr. Cohen, and adds that the “arrival of language was like the invasion of a parasitic system.” Because language is useful it spread like an epidemic into every pocket of early human life, and at its heart was the idea that one thing could represent another. But it “evolved from no known need,” and its enormous disruptive power was “of a piece with its value. Creative destruction. All sorts of talents and skills must have been lost…[replacing] at least part of the world with what can be said about it.”
McCarthy took these ideas for a spin in a brief 2017 essay, after completing a draft of Stella Maris.
There’s little doubt that Alicia speaks for him here, that her bleakness is his. Language is a Manichaean force, it both makes and destroys us, and wherever it comes from, the fact that we’ve learned it is a far from fortunate fall. The essay appeared in the science magazine Nautilus, and its argument grows out of McCarthy’s conversations with the fellows of the Santa Fe Institute, a multidisciplinary think tank with which he has long been associated. He almost never grants interviews, but whenever he does he notes the provocations and pleasures of talking with the institute’s physicists and mathematicians.
Alicia Western is inconceivable without those talks. Or no: what comes from them are the details of the things she says, the theories and the names, her belief that mathematics is “just sweat and toil” and yet also “a faith-based initiative.” But the ideas in Stella Marisare exciting because they’re hers, because they’re embedded in the drama and the struggle of her life. She appears to discover them as she speaks, thinking aloud while Dr. Cohen tries to follow. They are statements about the self, and they snap on the page even though—or precisely because—they won’t be enough to save her. The same ideas in McCarthy’s own essayistic voice are inert by comparison, the product and not the process of thought.
No long and intricate work of fiction is perfect. The Passenger could be tighter. McCarthy’s dialogue is always propulsive, and yet some of Bobby’s Louisiana encounters serve no real narrative purpose; they’re engaging in the moment, but that’s all. I’m uncertain, moreover, about the thematic necessity of the incest, the threatened or promised or balked desire between brother and sister. It does amp up their emotional bond; it explains why Alicia’s belief that Bobby won’t come out of his coma is what pushes her over, why too he remains a passenger in his own life. Yet aren’t some nonsexual bonds between siblings so tight that their loss can lead to despair? Perhaps that’s just my own squeamishness. That’s what Alicia herself would argue, and in reading it’s hard to dismiss her. Because I believe in that love. I believe it’s true of these particular characters; I believe it when she says that “the fact that it wasnt acceptable wasnt really our problem.”
When the men with badges start getting troublesome, Bobby decides he should hide his sister’s letters. Even the safe-deposit box where he keeps them might not be safe enough. He’s read them so often that he knows them by heart—all but the last one, the one he’s never opened. We’re not told much about it, but in The Passenger’s opening pages the Kid asks Alicia if she’s going to leave a note, and she tells him that she’s “writing my brother a letter,” one addressed to a man she believed was already as good as dead. She was dead herself by the time Bobby came out of his coma, and when he visits her Wisconsin hospital nobody will tell him the details of her last days. There’s certainly no Dr. Cohen to talk to, and Bobby never learns as much about her death as we do. At the end of The Passenger he hands the letter to his friend Debussy and asks her to read it for him. He leaves the room while she does, and when he returns her eyes are brimming. But he can’t make himself ask her what it says.
This isn’t the first time a novelist has used an unopened envelope as an emblem for the mystery of another person’s heart, and I doubt it will be the last. Nevertheless I felt like crying myself as I approached the end of Stella Maris, the end of this dark enthralling pair. Alicia’s sessions with her psychiatrist grow shorter and more ragged, and Dr. Cohen starts to note what the book’s form won’t allow us to see, the details of her physical appearance, so thin and worn and tearful. She can no longer resist what she runs toward, and each sentence brings her closer to the December day on which we first saw her frozen body. On the last page Dr. Cohen tells her that their time is up, without quite understanding that it’s really her own time that’s up, and ours too in a way. I know, she says:
Hold my hand.
Hold your hand?
Yes. I want you to.
All right. Why?
Because that’s what people do when they’re waiting for the end of something.
. . .
Michael Gorra is the author of Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece and The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War, among other books. He teaches at Smith.