At Harper’s, novelist Joy Williams has a nice long essay on Cormac McCarthy’s novels The Passenger and Stella Maris. Williams begins with a concern that I think is fundamental to reading these novels: How do they talk to each other?
Cormac McCarthy’s latest offering—in that word’s fundamentally spiritual sense—is The Passenger and its coda or addendum, Stella Maris. One is prompted to read The Passenger first (it came out in October) and Stella Maris second (it came out in December). If, however, you dare to test the trickster and begin with Stella Maris—a 189-page conversation between a psychiatrist and his patient—it will seriously trouble your perception of The Passenger. If you read the books in order, you might find Stella Maris (Latin for Star of the Sea, a psychiatric hospital in Black River Falls, Wisconsin) coldly underwhelming despite, or perhaps because of, the erudition of the twenty-one-year-old, debatably schizophrenic, suicidal math genius Alice Western.
Williams focuses heavily on Stella Maris at the outset of her essay, offering a stable timeline for the two novels. If you’ve read The Passenger and Stella Maris, you know that McCarthy withholds a linear, chronological plot. Williams’ plot-making though foregrounds something that’s easy to miss in a first-reading of The Passenger: Bobby is in a coma, officially brain dead after a racing accident. Williams writes that,
The invention of brain death serves the timeline of The Passenger well, and traversing this twisting line, tracing and retracing it, contesting it, surrendering to it, is one of the great and pleasurable challenges of these books. Is there a narrative line? The Kid thinks it’s important to locate one even if, as he says, it doesn’t hold up in court. As for McCarthy, plot has always been irrelevant to his purposes.
What are those purposes?
McCarthy is not interested in the psychology of character. He probably never has been. He’s interested in the horror of every living creature’s situation.
Cormac McCarthy is interested in . . . the unconscious and in the distaste for language the unconscious harbors and the mystery of the evolution of language, which chose only one species to evolve in. He’s interested in the preposterous acceptance that one thing—a sound that becomes a word—can refer to another thing, mean another thing, replacing the world bit by bit with what can be said about it.
. . . the overwhelming subject is the soul. Where can it be found? By what means does it travel? Is it frightened when we take leave of it? Can it find rest in the darkness? Animula vagula blandula. The soul. The freed and missing passenger.
I could continue to cherrypick at Williams’ essay, but will instead simply recommend you read it yourself. There’s all kinds of insights there—McCarthy’s weakness in portraying women; the homelessness motif of The Passenger; a brief cataloging of his oeuvre to date.
For me, the most interesting idea in Williams’ essay–which she never directly states–is that Bobby is actually brain dead and that the events in his chapters of The Passenger take place in his unconscious mind.
Williams’ essay was the first (and so far only) review of McCarthy’s latest novels that I’ve read. Thanks to BLCKDGRD for sending a scan of his physical copy my way last week.