Reads #153 & 154

Cormac McCarthy: The Passenger and Stella Maris

Might as well start the New Year with a biggie, something I have been looking forward to for a while. As I understand it, the initial sketches for The Passenger were laid down by McCarthy in the mid-80s before he had published The Border Trilogy or Blood Meridian, and that he worked and re-worked them through to around 2014, when it seems the final draft of The Passenger – at least – was submitted to his publisher.

Although they are separate novels, Stella Maris is presented as a coda to The Passenger: you can read either singularly, but Stella Maris will make a lot more sense if you have read The Passenger first.

The Passenger has a stylistic trick – a rarity for the author – in that he alternates stories in the opening chapters, and to indicate this they are presented in different type: the straight forward narrative is the story of Bobby Western (a lone cowboy-type, if you like) who we meet when he is a salvage diver based on the Gulf of Mexico – he has previously been a Formula Two racing car driver in Europe, until a near-fatal crash ended that. His story alternates with some hallucinatory episodes, which it becomes apparent are transcripts of psychiatric ‘treatment’ sessions of his younger sister Alice / Alicia – a Maths prodigy who kills herself while still young, after several spells in institutions – that are presented in italics. The passages / chapters in which Alicia is ‘interacting’ with the creatures she is seeing – possibly as part of her psychosis or as dream figures – are disjointed, illogical and uncomfortable, by design. The creatures, her nightmares, seem to be more or less the cast of the infamous 1932 film “Freaks”.

The Passenger initially seems that it is going to be a take on the 1940s noir thriller, with Bobby and a diving partner tasked with finding the wreckage of a light plane that recently crashed into the ocean. This they do and report back that all 8 bodies are still buckled into the seats on the plane, which seems to have little by way of visible damage. Except the flight manifest records that there were 9 on board when the flight took off. It quickly becomes apparent that someone is out to get them for possessing this knowledge…his flat gets raided, his car impounded, his bank account frozen…and he becomes a hunted man. On the run, he lives in a shack on an isolated farm in the Midwest, visits his grandparents, returns to a coastal shack where he lives without accessing money, working cash in hand – the IRS are also after him – before finally moving away from the States altogether.

Along the way characters appear, some take centre stage for a spell, before they vanish again. There are expositions on the Atomic Bomb (Bobby and Alice’s dad was Oppenheimer, it transpires; and both parents died of cancer), a friend discusses his posting to Vietnam – “I was there to inflict painful death“, which morphs into a horror-memory of elephants exploding under fire from helicopter machine guns, the killing of JFK and attendant conspiracy theory, a conversation with a trans woman who is a nightclub performer in New Orleans, and a long discourse on Maths / Physics which made me very happy that I had just read Carlo Rovelli, in that I knew some of the names and had a vague grasp of what they were talking about. It seems that recently McCarthy has devoted himself to studies in this area, meeting with luminaries in the field, as they pass through the Santa Fe Institute to which he has been affiliated for a good few years.

The sudden switches of location and time – not to mention the alternate reality of the alternate chapters – made for some feeling of disjointedness in the reading…but there were also times when the paragraphs and the sentences flow with all the muscularity and grace you expect from McCarthy: as Western is living on the Gulf Coast “Where he walked the tideline at dusk the last red reaches of the sun flared slowly out along the sky to the west and the tide pools stood like spills of blood.” He’s just too good a writer for it not to be ‘readable’, but I remain to be convinced that it is as satisfying as his earlier novels.

The ‘great secret’ that overhangs both books and therefore links them, is the love between the siblings. Both admit to being completely in love with the other, although Alicia, at least, is candid enough to insist that the love was unconsummated in real life, if not her dreams. This admission comes in Stella Maris (which I can’t help saying to myself as the PJ Harvey song “Stella Marie, you’re my star”), which is entirely a series of dialogues / sessions between Alicia and her psychiatrist Dr Cohen, with the exception of the first page, which is the ‘admission note’ of Alicia’s arrival at the facility: “twenty-years-old Jewish / Caucasian female. Attractive, possibly anorexic. Arrived six days ago…patient had a plastic bag full of hundred dollar bills – something over forty thousand dollars…(patient) is a doctoral candidate in mathematics…resident of this facility on two prior occasions“. In this Alicia and Bobby join a long list of “troubled / troubling” or “impossible couples” through whom narratives are played out, explained: The Kid and The Judge (Blood Meridian); John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins (All the Pretty Horses); Billy Parham and the she-wolf (The Crossing); John Grady Cole and Magdalena (Cities of the Plain); the man and the boy (The Road)

I have never undergone analysis, nor have I been a teenage girl, so I would shy away from writing from either position, McCarthy does not: whether he is successful in this endeavour in terms of verisimilitude I have no idea, for the reasons stated. But also, it is a work of fiction so, does it matter? Again, I don’t know. I enjoyed them for what they were and accepted them as presented. I was struck by the amount of writing that springs to mind when thinking about authors / characters reporting from psychiatric units: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Salinger’s Glass family stories, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Sarah Kane, Ginsberg, and Ken Kesey – off the top of my head. I don’t know what to make of this tangential thought. Except that, in keeping with these other works / authors, we are in the hands of unreliable narrators: where the telling gets tricky.

Alicia is a prodigy – rattling off names and theories, often before explaining why they are wrong – she graduated school at 12, gained her degree at 14 and was working towards her PhD when she suddenly quit. She is brutally logical and focussed. The things that matter to her in her life are Maths and her brother, who at the point when she is re-committed to Stella Maris, she believes is dying, as he is in a coma following a bad crash while racing – she refused permission to turn off his life-support.

She answers Cohen’s sometimes hesitant questions pedantically, monosyllabically at times, while at other times she is verbose, holding forth on a variety of subjects at some length – perhaps the most surprising is her view that language should be seen as a virus, an aberration in human evolution, not something that is particularly relevant to our survival, in fact perhaps something that will prove antithetical to it. Having said that language appears to be necessary “for craziness“, she goes on:

… you have to understand what the advent of language was like. The brain had done pretty well without it for quite a few million years. The arrival of language was like the invasion of a parasitic system… The extraordinary usefulness of language turned it into an overnight epidemic. It seems to have spread to every remote pocket of humanity almost instantly… The brain had no idea any of this was coming. The unconscious must have had to do all sorts of scrambling around to accommodate a system that proved perfectly relentless. Not only is it comparable to a parasitic invasion, it’s not comparable to anything else… What makes it interesting is that language evolved from no known need.

There is a case to be made for Alicia being some kind of mouthpiece for McCarthy, in some PhD, sometime in the future.

I would not be surprised if earlier drafts had the two books as one, with the Alicia analysis episodes as part of a larger whole. But I can see how that would give an unwieldy 600-650 page novel, not to mention one that veered off all over the place. The decision to have two books is wise, but they will always sit next to each on shelves.

I need to read them both again – like any McCarthy – to have a proper view, but I did enjoy them. If you’re looking for something that will sit alongside Blood Meridian, the Border Trilogy or even The Road you will probably be disappointed, these are not on that scale: that bell that chimed so loudly over American literature is diminished. Plus, there are no cowboys.


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