It makes me a participant in the universe | Barry Hannah on Cormac McCarthy’s prose

Interviewer: You mention the influence of Faulkner. Who are some of the writers around at the moment who you admire and who influence you?

Hannah: Cormac McCarthy. It’s not just the language, although I can’t imagine loving his books without the special language. He’s one of the few writers who has a vision. Relentless. It’s very rough—almost fascistic, as nature is. Darwinian. But he gives such reverence to nature itself. I think that is why he seems atavistic; he likes the fact that there was a time when boulders, trees, mosses with lichens—all their individual names participated right next to man. And even though there are horrible things that happen in his books, he’s quite sure that we have disconnected ourselves from the good stuff. He can make a gorgeous, almost epic, page out of a man riding a horse through a half decent meadow somewhere in Mexico. Actually, it kind of makes me excited in a positive way—does not depress me as it does others—because it makes me a participant in the universe. You are no longer just a dead man, floating. You’re right there with the stars, smoke, the peace, and the beauty—as well as the violence. It makes you a player.

From a 1996 interview with Barry Hannah. Published in a 2011 issue of Mississippi Review.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger

[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger. I think The Passenger is a brilliant, messy, baggy synthesis of much of the philosophical and aesthetic themes of McCarthy’s previous work; I loved it.

I’ve preserved the reviewers’ own styles of punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews.]


jumble

I’m too old

Horrible sci fi

another gut-punch.

literary tricksterisms

this one is different in so many ways

the airplane is never mentioned again

a cluster mess of absolutely nothing

Virtue signaling

who is missing

Zero.

Zilch.

Nada.

rambling

confusing

nonsensical

300 pages of mostly sci-fi

nothing like his previous writings

This author has written several really good novels

The only mention of salvage diving to find a plane was in the beginning of the book.

nothing about it makes one happy to be reading it

Introspection with no development

mediocrity

absurdity

Incest

A plot with … no plot.

I literally threw it in the garbage

portions in italics about some person with flipper hands in some alter reality

Tedious chapters where a character we never meet argues with her imaginary friends.

the editor and McCarthy were both under the influence of something!

he has decided to eliminate quotation marks

these questions are never answered

disjointed

irregular

senseless

I am a fan of McCarthy

The only passenger is the reader

reads like two people on an acid trip

If you are an average reader then you will find this book difficult to read

Why is the plane in the river

lack of punctuation

time line confusing

no stars

ten zeros

lost and confused

made me feel stupid

one of Americas great writers

A lot of physics talk by men with questionable morals.

a sunken private jet in the Gulf of Mexico is the MacGuffin in this book

I’ve read two other Cormac McCarthy works: The Road, and No Country For Old Men. I enjoyed them both, although they were nothing special.

If this book had been submitted for publication by an unknown author it never would have been published

gassy dialogue about cars, tools, diving, drinking, the Deep State, hopeless forbidden love, and loss

I get the distinct impression that the publicists never read more than the beginning of the book.

Will I read the sequel? Probably, just to see if this novel can be redeemed.

not the action adventure novel that the jacket cover advertises

I was continuing out of spite.

life is too short

What story?

 

Nation and ghost of nation passing in a soft chorale across that mineral waste to darkness bearing lost to all history and all remembrance like a grail the sum of their secular and transitory and violent lives | From Cormac McCarthy’s novel All the Pretty Horses

In the evening he saddled his horse and rode out west from the house. The wind was much abated and it was very cold and the sun sat blood red and elliptic under the reefs of bloodred cloud before him. He rode where he would always choose to ride, out where the western fork of the old Comanche road coming down out of the Kiowa country to the north passed through the westernmost section of the ranch and you could see the faint trace of it bearing south over the low prairie that lay between the north and middle forks of the Concho River. At the hour he’d always choose when the shadows were long and the ancient road was shaped before him in the rose and canted light like a dream of the past where the painted ponies and the riders of that lost nation came down out of the north with their faces chalked and their long hair plaited and each armed for war which was their life and the women and children and women with children at their breasts all of them pledged in blood and redeemable in blood only. When the wind was in the north you could hear them, the horses and the breath of the horses and the horses’ hooves that were shod in rawhide and the rattle of lances and the constant drag of the travois poles in the sand like the passing of some enormous serpent and the young boys naked on wild horses jaunty as circus riders and hazing wild horses before them and the dogs trotting with their tongues aloll and foot-slaves following half naked and sorely burdened and above all the low chant of their traveling song which the riders sang as they rode, nation and ghost of nation passing in a soft chorale across that mineral waste to darkness bearing lost to all history and all remembrance like a grail the sum of their secular and transitory and violent lives.

From Cormac McCarthy’s novel All the Pretty Horses

—which I picked up again the other day to find a passage in connection to The Passenger and started rereading. The swelling rhythm of this passage would have knocked my socks off had I been wearing socks.

What else? | Last scattered thoughts on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger

What else?

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

Versions of the phrase What else repeat throughout The Passenger, sometimes at the beginning of a sentence but more often than not as a two-word statement or question. It’s a verbal tic not unlike the plentiful instances of They rode on to be found in Blood Meridian, and like that phrase, it serves as a linguistic placeholder that both moves the action of the novel and also advances one of its central philosophical themes.

What else? here is plaintive, existential, but also human, relatable.


The novel Blood Meridian (1985) establishes Cormac McCarthy as unchallenged king of literary mule carnage. No fewer than fifty-nine specific mules die in the book, plus dozens more that are alluded to in groups and bunches. Mules are shot, roasted, drowned, knifed, and slain by thirst; but the largest number, 50 out of a conducta of 122 mules carrying quicksilver for mining, plummet from a single cliff during an ambush, performing an almost choreographic display of motion and color, “the animals dropping silently as martyrs, turning sedately in the empty air and exploding on the rocks below in startling bursts of blood and silver as the flasks broke open and the mercury loomed wobbling in the air in great sheets and lobes and small trembling satellites. . . . Half a hundred mules had been ridden off the escarpment.”

The Dead Mule Rides Again,” Jerry Leath Mills


A small mule danced in a flowered field. He stopped to watch it. It rose on its hind legs like a satyr and sawed its head about. It whinnied and hauled at its rope and kicked and it stopped and stood splayfooted and stared at Western and then went hopping and howling. It had browsed through a nest of wasps but Western didnt know how to help it and he went on.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

This minor scene in the last pages of The Passenger seems like another previously-rare self-referential move on McCarthy’s part. Our “unchallenged king of literary mule carnage” sets up what appears, at first, a bucolic, even corny image—a mule dancing in a field of flowers. The pastoral, frolicking image comes undone under scrutiny—the mule is not at play but under duress. But the duress is not the result of a moral malice. It’s simply natural. Western cannot assuage the mule’s pain, he can only observe it, which he does so with a stoic measure of sympathy.

Detail from Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and the Dead Mule, Honore Daumier, 1867

He said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war. Men say they only learn this but he said that no creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold.

All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy


The other dream was this. There was a riderless horse standing at a gate at dawn. Some other country, some other time. The news that the horse brings is a day’s ride old, no more. The horse’s dreams were once of mares and grass and water. The sun. But those dreams are no more. His is a world of blood and slaughter and the screams of men and animals all of which he has little understanding of. The horse stands at the gate with his head bowed while the day breaks. He wears a cloak of knitted steel dark with blood and he stands with one forefoot tilted upon the stones. No one comes. The news does not arrive.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

The above passage was probably the saddest moment in The Passenger for me. The speaker is the ghost of Long John Sheddan, present in the consciousness of Bobby Western. It is the horse’s dream inside of Sheddan’s dream (inside of Western’s dream (McCarthy’s dream)) that I find so sad—an Edenic vision flooded with the reality of blood and violence, by the mechanics of war. The horse stalks the stones of the earth, awaiting a revelation that does not come to pass. No one comes. The news does not arrive.


I always thought when I got older that God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn’t. I don’t blame him. If I was him I’d have the same opinion about me that he does.

No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy


I waited to hear from God and I never did.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy


Like most writers committed to pessimism, McCarthy is never very far from theodicy. Relentless pain, relentlessly displayed, has a way of provoking metaphysical complaint. . . .

But [in Blood Meridian] McCarthy stifles the question of theodicy before it can really speak. His myth of eternal violence—his vision of men “invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them”—asserts, in effect, that rebellion is pointless because this is how it will always be. Instead of suffering, there is represented violence; instead of struggle, death; instead of lament, blood.

Red Planet”, James Wood

Critic James Wood was unkind in his estimation of Blood Meridian. He demanded a theodicy from McCarthy—never McCarthy’s intention—and then failed to attend to any evidence in the novel that would indicate the possibility of resistance to unrepentant Darwinian malice, to an illiterate taste for mindless violence.


I don’t know if Wood has written on the latest, not last, but close-to-last, novel from McCarthy. The only review I’ve read was a short tweet from a contemporary Irish writer whose latest novel I very-much admired. He did not think The Passenger was good. I believe he wrote that it was, in fact, very bad. I really loved The Passenger, and when I finally get this last little riff out of my system, I might even read some reviews.


In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of a sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again.

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy


In the end, she had said, there will be nothing that cannot be simulated. And this will be the final abridgment of privilege. This is the world to come. Not some other. The only alternate is the surprise in those antic shapes burned into the concrete.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

The final moments of The Passenger, particularly Alicia Western’s words (via Bobby’s memory) seem to echo the gnostic dream that is the epilogue of Blood Meridian. Her apocalyptic final line (again, via Bobby’s consciousness) evokes the consequences of the atomic bomb, a new original sin of creation: “My father’s latterday petroglyphs and the people upon the road naked and howling.”

Alicia chooses to erase herself from the world, while Bobby stays in it, lives. The final moments of The Passenger point to a sliver of metaphysical hope:

He knew on the day of his death he would see her face and he could hope to carry that beauty with him into the darkness with him, the last pagan on earth, singing softly on his pallet in an unknown tongue.


You have to carry the fire.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy.

 

White Meridian | More scattered thoughts on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger

He’d bought a small ruled notebook at the stationer’s in Ibiza. Cheap pulp paper that would soon yellow and crumble. He took it out and wrote in it with his pencil. Vor mir keine Zeit, nach mir wird keine Sein.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

In the second paragraph of the last chapter of Cormac McCarthy’s new novel The Passenger, protagonist Bobby Western, now living on a Spanish island near Ibiza, writes in German a sentence in a cheap notebook. The sentence translates to something like, Before me there will be no time, after me there will be none.


Vor mir war keine Zeit, nach mir wird keine seyn,
Mit mir gebiert sie sich, mit mir geht sie auch ein.

Sexcenta Monodisticha Sapientum, III, II, Daniel von Czepko (1655)

Western’s line appears to be cribbed from an epigram by the early seventeenth-century German poet, Daniel von Czepko. Czepko’s epigram translates to something like, Before me there was no time, after me there will be none / With me she gives birth, with me she dies.


I deny, in a high number of instances, the existence of succession. I deny, in a high number of instances, contemporaneity as well.

“A New Refutation of Time,” Jorge Luis Borges, translated by James E. Irby

Did McCarthy find Czepko’s in Borges’ essay “A New Translation in Time,” where I found it when I first searched the German phrase?


All language is of a successive nature: it does not lend itself to reasoning on eternal, intemporal matters.

“A New Refutation of Time,” Jorge Luis Borges, translated by James E. Irby


I feel like I’ve jumped into the deep end here too quickly for this riff, what with the seventeenth-century German poet and the wonky Borges essay that feels like a gimmicky (and perhaps ironic) championing of idealism in service towards forging an aesthetics of time. Let me put in a simpler substitution for Western’s (McCarthy’s (Borges’ (Czepko’s))) epigram, a favorite line from another life-and-deather with oceanic motifs:

Perhaps an individual must consider his own death to be the final phenomenon of nature.

“The Open Boat,” Stephen Crane


Start again: This is a scattered mess. I finished The Passenger yesterday, punched in the face by the final chapter, where McCarthy condenses characters and tropes and symbols and allegories into a slim 19 pages that points to both infinity and death. The Passenger is possibly McCarthy’s baggiest novel, messier than Suttree, and eschewing even a glimmer of the precision of Blood Meridian. Like No Country for Old MenThe Passenger is bound in genre fiction tropes—crime novels, detective novels, 1970s paranoia novels, Westerns, and so on. Like No Country, The Passenger purposefully derails reader expectations for what the genre plot should do. The refusal to go forward with the initial promised plot (Who is the missing passenger, escaped or removed from the sunken plane?) reinforces the tense ambiguity in the core of McCarthy’s worldview. The apparent abandoning of a tight plot might alienate some readers, but I suspect most fans of the trajectory of McCarthy’s work would have been disappointed if he’d stuck to a story that Makes Sense and Follows a Clear Trajectory and Ultimately Resolves. I would have been furious if the end of The Passenger gave up some kind of easy answer.


For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
“Because I could not stop for Death” (poem 479), Emily Dickinson

In her white gown carrying the barnlantern out through the trees. Holding the hem of her gown, her slender form candled in the sheeting. The shadows of the trees, then just the dark. The cold in the stone amphitheatre and the slow turning of the stars overhead.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy


Last time I wrote about The Passenger, I wrote about its dominant incest motif. I suggested that the dummy Crandall was the dreamchild of incestuous Western union. I had not yet gotten to the episode where Bobby, on the lam in Idaho, dreams of an incestuous stillborn child, one with only the rudiments of a brain. Bobby queries the dream doctor of his dreamchild: “Does it have a soul?” Bobby’s True Love, his sister Alicia, is the barest slip of a ghost in the final chapter of The Passenger (in contrast to the ghost of Long John Sheddan, who gets a full last dialogue with Bobby), but she shows up again here—theatrical, ghostly, an echo of the speaker of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death.” I hope we get more from Alicia Western in Stella Maris.


His father. Who had created out of the absolute dust of the earth an evil sun by whose light men saw like some hideous adumbration of their own ends through cloth and flesh the bones in one another’s bodies.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy


Père Western, coauthor of the atom bomb (“evil sun”/evil son, evil Adam) is a background wraith in The Passneger (although more present than Ma Western—but I’m sure the lack of mothers in McCarthy’s oeuvre has been commented on at length, perhaps in academic papers. Dude doesn’t include mothers, and mother figures, if they appear, are tangential, marginalized). Wait, where was I? Père Western, haunting the background of The Passenger, takes a bit more of the stage (just a bit) in the final chapter of The Passenger. His Big Crime seems to soak diver Bobby, even if Bobby can’t directly address it.


It was a lone tree burning on the desert. A herladic tree that the passing storm had left afire. The solitary pilgrim drawn up before it had traveled far to be here and he knelt in the hot sand and held his numbed hands out while all about in that circle attended companies of lesser auxiliaries routed forth into the inordinate day, small owls that crouched silently and stood from foot to foot and tarantulas and solpugas and vinegarroons and the vicious mygale spiders and beaded lizards with mouths black as a chowdog’s, deadly to man, and the little desert basilisks that jet blood from their eyes and the small sandvipers like seemly gods, silent and the same, in Jedda, in Babylon. A constellation of ignited eyes that edged the ring of light all bound in a precarious truce before the torch whose brightness had set back the stars in their sockets.

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy


His father spoke little to them of Trinity. Mostly he’d read it in the literature. Lying face down in the bunker. Their voices low in the darkness. Two. One. Zero. Then the sudden whited meridian. Out there the rocks dissolving into a slag that pooled over the melting sands of the desert. Small creatures crouched aghast in the sudden and unholy day and then were no more. What appeared to be some vast violetcolored creature rising up out of the earth where it had thought to sleep its deathless sleep and wait its hour of hours.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy.


More than a decade ago, I suggested on this site that the moral core of McCarthy’s best novel Blood Meridian is a sequence wherein a host of creatures coalesce into a “constellation of ignited eyes…in a precarious truce” to observe a burning tree in the desert. Witness and attendant, his own eyes presumably ignited, is the kid, the hero of Blood Meridian. The sequence rebukes the pronouncements of Judge Holden, satanic anchor of that novel, pointing towards coexistence and peace.

The whited meridian sequence in The Passenger, evoking the first ever detonation of a nuclear weapon, reverses McCarthy’s previous passage—blanches it, makes a ghost of it, turns its blood white. Whites it.


(I have a few more thoughts scribbled on a cheap yellow legal pad but the hour grows late and a big storm looms—so, more thoughts to come (including a kind of peace with mules?)


 

The incest thing | More scattered thoughts on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger

He’s in love with his sister and she’s dead.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

 

The theme of brother-sister incest haunts the early American novel on its lower levels of literacy as well as on the higher—a nightmare from which our writers do not choose to awake too soon, since it is one their readers are willing to pay to share.

Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler

 

When he woke she was leaning against his shoulder. He thought she was asleep but she was looking out the plane window. We can do whatever we want, she said.

No, he said. We cant.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

 

She turned to the Kid. What does it say on the trunk?

What does what say? 

There’s a sticker on the trunk.

Yeah. It says progeny of Western Union.

Progeny?

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy


The last in the series of quotes above is an exchange between Alicia Western and her hort/figment/projection the Thalidomide Kid. The Kid has caused to be brought to Alicia a wiseassed—cruel, even—ventriloquist dummy. The dummy is another fitting prop in the Alicia-Kid episodes that punctuate The Passenger. It again underlines the vaudevillian aspect of these interstitial pieces, while also highlighting the novel’s themes of ventriloquism—of how memory of the dead might speak through the living, as the living grapple with death.

The quips above feature another of the Kid’s malapropisms — in this case his substitution of “progeny of Western Union” for property of Western Union. The Freudian slip (never really a slip on our imp’s tongue) points to The Passenger’s incest motif. It turns out that the dummy’s name is Crandall (perhaps named for the typewriter?). It’s likely Alicia herself named Crandall, and her grandmother tailored his clothes. I think the strong implication is that handy Bobby Western built (fathered) Crandall. In this sense, Crandall is the dreamchild born of a Western union. “I was only six,” Alicia cries as he disappears back into his case.


The incest motif perforates the literary tradition. We find it in Oedipus, in Lot seduced by his daughters, in David’s children Tamar and Amnon–a tale recapitulated in Faulkner’s southern Gothic Absalom! Absalom! We find it coded in Poe’s tale “The Fall of the House of Usher” or made strange but more clear in Melville’s baffling Pierre. We find it in the tawdry attic of V.C. Andrew’s lurid Dollanganger novels (likely read by many more Americans than the other novels I’ve named).

The incest thing in literature is, of course, an exploration of taboo, and is such the rightful property (or progeny) of literature. In his seminal (and often bombastic) study Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler suggests that “brother-sister incest in particular comes to stand in Romantic symbology for the rebellion against paternal authority, for the spirit of revolution itself.” He continues, declaring that the “Oedipal significance” of this revolutionary spirit “projects not only the desire to revolt, but also to die; that is to say, beneath the yearning for rebellion lies hidden the wish to be punished for it.”


Le’ts follow Fiedler’s reading (ahem, rehashing of Freud) and stick it on to the Western children: What is the paternal authority they rebel against—that is, beyond the actual literal father (a marginal memory)? Père Western was one of the lead authors of the atomic bomb. He changed the American relationship to death, permanently.


I have a little under a hundred pages left to go in The Passenger, but if either Bobby or Alicia has expressed overt familiar guilt over their father’s work in engineering mass death, I’ve missed it. What does linger is a deep-seated, unspoken anxiety about their father’s deeds.


At the end of his own surreal and improbable conversation with the Thalidomide Kid, Bobby expresses the only loss of his life, the only ashes in his world:

There is no other loss. Do you understand? The world is ashes. Ashes. For her to be in pain? The least insult? The least humiliation? Do you understand? For her to die alone? Her? There is no other loss. Do you understand? No other loss. None.

The emotional outburst, with its plaintive tone and cycle of repetitions, is rare for Bobby Western: for the most part, when The Passenger juts its free indirect speech into Bobby’s skull, we get simple, direct (if increasingly paranoid) language.


It’s when he thinks of his sister Alicia that Bobby’s voice gives over to passion, to a kind of Gothic romantic language that recalls Poe more than Hemingway. Consider how Gothic frills in the following passage soon give way to an archaic and obscure (yet still ornate) style that recalls the Cormac McCarthy of Blood Meridian:

In his dreams of her she wore at times a smile he tried to remember and she would say to him almost in a chant words he could scarcely follow. He knew that her lovely face would soon exist nowhere save in his memories and in his dreams and soon after that nowhere at all. She came in half nude trailing sarsenet or perhaps just her Grecian sheeting crossing a stone stage in the smoking footlamps or she would push back the cowl of her robe and her blonde hair would fall about her face as she bent to him where he lay in the damp and clammy sheets and whisper to him I’d have been your shadowlane, the keeper of that house alone wherein your soul is safe. And all the while a clangor like the labor of a foundry and dark figures in silhouette about the alchemic fires, the ash and the smoke. The floor lay littered with the stillborn forms of their efforts and still they labored on, the raw half-sentient mud quivering red on the autoclave. In that dusky penetralium they press about the crucible shoving and gibbering while the deep heresiarch dark in his folded cloak urges them on in their efforts. And then what thing unspeakable is this raised dripping up through crust and calyx from what hellish marinade. He woke sweating and switched on the bedlamp and swung his feet to the floor and sat with his face in his hands. Dont be afraid for me, she had written. When has death ever harmed anyone?


(I had not intended to type out the entire passage above, but once I got going I couldn’t stop.)


Bobby’s dream begins as an erotic manifestation of his sister, a Gothic evocation in silk ribbon or Grecian garb. She takes to a “stone stage,” again underscoring the shift into high drama. “I’d have been your shadowlane, the keeper of that house alone wherein your soul is safe,” she declares. The word shadowlane here seems like a symbolic substitution for the near homphone chatelaine, an archaic word for a woman who keeps a castle or great house (readers of Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series will be familiar with the word).

A chatelaine also refers to a chain belt used for holding keys, an image that carries over into the second half of Bobby’s dream, which shifts from eroticism to terror. Shadowy figures inhabit a “dusky penetralium,” an innermost chamber, a locked place. Here, the figures labor with red “half-sentient mud” (Adamic atoms) in an “autoclave” (self-key). Amidst a litter of stillbirths, the figures toil to bring a new creature into being.

Bobby’s dream moves from brother-sister incest to the Gothic terror of a laboratory creation coming to life—an evocation of the father’s sins. Bobby’s subconscious mind transmutes the Manhattan Project into a satanic ritual presided over by a clandestine “heresiarch” — the damning father figure whose strange experiment impede Bobby’s incestuous consummation. Instead, we get another Western union. And the promise of death.


(More thoughts to come.)

You never did the Thalidomide Kid | More scattered thoughts on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger

The Thalidomide Kid found her in a roominghouse on Clark Street. Near North Side. He knocked on the door. Unusual for him. Of course she knew who it was. She’d been expecting him. And anyway it wasn’t really a knock. Just a sort of slapping sound.

–The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

Maybe you did fool the Philadelphia, rag the Rochester, josh the Joliet. But you never did the Kenosha kid.

–Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon.

Surely you must know who it is who cuts the ludicrous figure here.

Do I? Who you gonna ask? And don’t call me Shirley.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

Either They have put him here for a reason, or he’s just here.

–Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon.

What do they want? What does who want?

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy [italics mine]

The wankers had a word for it.

We saw it in a book Crosseyed Ruby showed us. Phocomelia. Ruby said that’s Greek and means seal limb. Fukkin seal limb!

Skin, Peter Milligan, Brendan McCarthy, and Carol Swain


I’m a bit over halfway through Cormac McCarthy’s new novel The Passenger and enjoying it very much. I haven’t read any reviews, but I’ve seen some tweets and some other internet buzz that seems to indicate that Reviews Are Mixed. I went into the novel with minimal expectations, as I admitted in my first little riff on it. 

But so far The Passenger has done what I hoped it might do: show McCarthy venturing into new territory, but territory still anchored in his roots. It also is, at least up through its first 200 pages, McCarthy’s most accessible novel.

As I write the words “McCarthy’s most accessible novel,” I realize that it’s entirely possible that previous McCarthy novels have taught me to read The Passenger—but I don’t think that’s so. The Passenger offers a somewhat-straightforward frame of alternating strands. Numbered chapters (composed in italics) hover in the mind of the schizophrenic genius Alicia Western, whose suicide (no spoiler) initiates the novel. These short chapters then give way to the main narrative thrust of The Passenger in unnumbered chapters that focus on Alicia’s brother Bobby Western, a near-genius with an eidetic memory and a hole in his soul.

Bobby Western is a salvage diver based out of New Orleans. In his initial chapter, he searches the wreck of a small plane in the Gulf of Mexico, and quickly realizes that–gasp!–a passenger from the manifest is missing (along with a control panel) from the wreck. Bobby’s subsequent investigations into the whereabouts of the missing passenger lead to his being tailed and surveilled by a nebulous They. Paranoia!

The prose mechanics of the Bobby chapters are reminiscent of No Country for Old Men (lots of men-doing-stuff in detail), as well as the genre fictions of George V. Higgins, Chester Himes, or James Ellroy. The Bobby chapters also lend a bagginess to the novel. They often sprawl out into long conversations with his friends that amount to pleasant asides from the plot proper—a Vietnam vet, a transwoman, a college buddy turned petty thief. We also start to cobble together the Western family history. Alicia and Bobby’s father was a physicist who worked with Oppenheimer to develop the atomic bomb.

With the specter of a They and the haunted past of the Bomb, The Passenger drifts into Pynchon territory. The Alicia chapters go a step beyond superficial connections, unexpectedly approaching Pynchonian prose, particularly in the figure of Alicia’s interlocutor, the Thalidomide Kid (usually simply called The Kid, an echo perhaps of Blood Meridian).

(Parenthetically–The Thalidomide Kid, who shows up almost immediately in The Passenger, is only the second so-called “thalidomide baby” that I’ve seen appear in a work of fiction. The first was Martin Atchet in the graphic novel Skin, written by Peter Milligan, with art by Brendan McCarthy, and colors by Carol Swain. Track it down if you dare.)

The Thalidomide Kid presides over the “horts,” the cohort of intelligences and personalities that vie for space in Alicia’s troubled mind. The Kid is part carny, part philosopher, slipping on malapropisms and dealing in corny jokes and bad puns. He could have walked right out of a Pynchon novel. He dons costumes, performs parlor tricks, and runs vaudeville routines. In one bit, wearing “frockcoat and frightwig,” he mocks modern psychiatry, playing false Freud to Alicia’s patient (she’s recently returned from analysis, soon on her way to electroshock therapy). Elsewhere, they discuss the philosophy of math. Or maybe the math of philosophy–these bits might be beyond my ken (and beyond McCarthy’s ken). The Thalidomide Kid episodes are simultaneously hallucinatory and lucid, zany and sinister, comic and tragic. The mode, again, strikes me as more Pynchonian than what we might think of as classic McCarthy (Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy).

I’ve overemphasized (and foregrounded, both in the title of this post and the quotes I’ve pulled) a connection between The Passenger and Pynchon’s fiction, but to be clear, there is no sense that McCarthy is aping Pynchon. Indeed, I’d be surprised if McCarthy has ever read Pynchon. What I see in common between the fiction of these two old masters (just five years apart in age) is a kind of filtering of the twentieth century, a distillation of not just themes, but also style. Pynchon has always made his ventriloquist act clear to his audience, (even as he ironizes it). In The Passenger, McCarthy finally seems a bit looser, more relaxed, more willing to let the genres and voices bend and refract. It might not be as cutting and heavy as Blood Meridian or Suttree, but it’s every bit as vibrant and inventive. More thoughts to come.

Scattered thoughts on starting Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger (Book acquired, 25 Oct. 2022)

I picked up Cormac McCarthy’s new novel The Passenger today. The last Cormac McCarthy novel was The Road, which came out way back in 2006, year of this blog’s birth. I read most of The Road in the delivery ward over a few days when my daughter was born. Since then I’ve read pretty much everything by McCarthy that’s been published (excepting the screenplay for The Counselor), and a lot of it more than once. (I’ve reread Blood Meridian more times than I can think of. I fall asleep to the audiobook version sometimes when I have trouble sleeping, starting at a random chapter.) In the decade and a half after his last novel The Road became an unlikely, Oprah-endorsed hit, McCarthy wrote a screenplay for a film I can’t even pretend is any good and an article about “The Kekulé Problem,” which was published in Nautilus. He seemed to devote most of his time to hanging around the Santa Fe Institute, where he is a trustee.

Rumors of The Passenger have slipped around the internet for the past seven years—it would be about lawyer, it would be about a mathematician, it would be the first McCarthy novel to feature a woman as its main character, it would be in a wholly new style. Scraps and rumors seeped out, but like a lot of readers, I suspect, or at least readers I spoke to online and even in the flesh, I didn’t expect to see a completed version of The Passenger published in McCarthy’s lifetime. (He’s 89, just a few years younger than my dear sweet grandmother, also from Tennessee, who passed away this past Thursday.) I thought that we might see a version of the text, eventually, posthumous, possibly even cobbled together, a la Wallace’s The Pale King or Hemingway’s Garden of Eden.

But Knopf announced not only would The Passenger publish in 2022, so too would a shorter, connected novel Stella Maris. I’ll admit I was both excited and apprehensive, especially after reading The Silence by Don DeLillo two years ago. DeLillo is (like Thomas Pynchon) just four years younger than Cormac McCarthy. And The Silence is hardly his strongest stuff. But apples and oranges: who am I to worry one old master against another old master? So I was excited. (But apprehensive.)

So I picked up Cormac McCarthy’s new novel The Passenger today. The cover is not as bad as it looked in the early internet promotional pics—not as static and flat. But it’s still not a great cover (and I say this as one partial to blue and orange, colors of my alma mater).

But a cover is not a book. I went into the pages. Before I get into the words on the pages, here’s a bit on the form of The Passenger. The novel appears to switch between two viewpoint characters: Alicia and her brother Bobby Western. (Bobby Western sounds like a William S. Burroughs character.) The Alicia passages are shorter, written completely in italics (which is fucking annoying) and given chapter numbers. The Bobby Western chapters look like regular ole Cormac McCarthy chapters.

And so well: I ended up reading the first chapter, the Alicia chapter twice. It is unlike anything else McCarthy has written. The chapter takes place in Alicia’s head in the form of a discursive discussion with “the Thalidomide Kid,” a vaudevillian interlocutor who’s quick with punning wordplay that’s rare in McCarthy’s work (of the apparent suicide note Alicia aims to write, he chides that it will be a “wintry summary”). With all his japes and clowning and weird zany energy (and hell, that name), the Thalidomide Kid seems like something more out of a Pynchon or Robert Coover story than a McCarthy novel. The closest thing that I can compare it to, at least in McCarthy’s oeuvre, is the trip scene in Suttree. I really really dig it. It’s dark and weird.

The first Alicia section ends with a dream of her brother, whom we then meet in the next section. Bobby Western is a salvage diver working with the Coast Guard in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s three am and freezing cold and there’s a jet with nine dead bodies down in the dark water. The writing here is what I would expect from McCarthy: lots of ands and thens, a general disregard for punctuation, and a lot of descriptions of men doing things. (There’s even a He spat in there!) This particular section was excerpted in The New York Times a fortnight ago, and you can read it without anything being spoiled for you, but I don’t think it’s nearly as interesting without the hallucinatory Alicia chapter that precedes it.

And that’s all I’ve got for now. I saw some lit folks I respect who have apparently read the novel already suggest that it’s Not Good, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen so far, and Want More.

 

Aw, kick him, honey | Gérard DuBois illustration for Blood Meridian

Illustration for Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian by Gérard DuBois. From the Folio Society edition of Blood Meridian.

Any serious writer is experimental in that he’s trying to do something new or better | Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy’s works have been termed “experimental” by most critics but he thinks that can be said of most serious writers. “Any serious writer is experimental in that he’s trying to do something new or better.” A serious writer, he adds, sits down and begins to write and develop the story as he goes along. “He doesn’t just sit down and 70,000 or 80,000 words come full blown into his head.” He suggests that anyone who intends to write “read to know what’s been written before—both good and bad.” This point complements the theory of author as experimenter, for, as McCarthy said, “you will see things in other writers you admire and that you think you can do better.”

From a November, 1968 feature on Cormac McCarthy published in The Lexington Herald-Leader. The article is included in “Cormac McCarthy’s Interviews in Tennessee and Kentucky, 1968–1980,” published in The Cormac McCarthy Journal. The last feature in the collection centers on McCarthy’s efforts to adapt William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying into a film.

Three minutes of Cormac McCarthy riffing on Wittgenstein

Twelve-year-old Cormac McCarthy starred in a 1946 agricultural documentary called Dairying in Tennessee

Redditor Jarslow posted the short film Dairying in Tennessee today on the Cormac McCarthy Reddit page. The short film was posted on Vimeo by the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound yesterday,  where the organization notes that “A year earlier, McCarthy was on the shortlist to play Jody in Clarence Brown’s film adaptation of “The Yearling.” Of McCarthy’s audition, an MGM representative told a Knoxville Journal reporter, “This boy has personality plus, and he’s done a good job living down jests tossed at him because of his name.” The role ultimately went to Claude Jarman, Jr.”

 

New novels from Cormac McCarthy in the fall of 2022

Cormac McCarthy has two novels coming out later this year: The Passenger and Stella Maris. Speculation about The Passenger has percolated for years, with increased interest after McCarthy read excerpts at the Santa Fe Institute in August of 2015. The reading was captured on video and disseminated on the internet and subsequently transcribed (stirring protest from the Cormac McCarthy Society).

A story in The New York Times reports that The Passenger and Stella Maris “represent a major stylistic and thematic departure for McCarthy” and that his “longtime publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, will release” the novels a month apart this fall.

As of now, Knopf’s website doesn’t include any info about the novels, but the NYT story does include what appears to be cover art:

McCarthy’s UK publisher, Pan Macmillan, does have some info on their website about the books, which will apparently be released in a “box set” edition in the UK.

Pan Macmillan also offers some descriptions of the books:

The Passenger

1980, PASS CHRISTIAN, MISSISSIPPI: It is three in the morning when Bobby Western zips the jacket of his wetsuit and plunges from the boat deck into darkness. His divelight illuminates the sunken jet, nine bodies still buckled in their seats, hair floating, eyes devoid of speculation. Missing from the crash site are the pilot’s flightbag, the plane’s black box, and the tenth passenger. But how? A collateral witness to machinations that can only bring him harm, Western is shadowed in body and spirit – by men with badges; by the ghost of his father, inventor of the bomb that melted glass and flesh in Hiroshima; and by his sister, the love and ruin of his soul. Traversing the American South, from the garrulous bar rooms of New Orleans to an abandoned oil rig off the Florida coast, The Passenger is a breathtaking novel of morality and science, the legacy of sin, and the madness that is human consciousness.

Stella Maris

1972, BLACK RIVER FALLS, WISCONSIN: Alicia Western, twenty years old, with forty thousand dollars in a plastic bag, admits herself to the hospital. A doctoral candidate in mathematics at the University of Chicago, Alicia has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and she does not want to talk about her brother, Bobby. Instead, she contemplates the nature of madness, the human insistence on one common experience of the world; she recalls a childhood where, by the age of seven, her own grandmother feared for her; she surveys the intersection of physics and philosophy; and she introduces her cohorts, her chimeras, the hallucinations that only she can see. All the while, she grieves for Bobby, not quite dead, not quite hers. Told entirely through the transcripts of Alicia’s psychiatric sessions, Stella Maris is a searching, rigorous, intellectually challenging coda to The Passenger, a philosophical inquiry that questions our notions of God, truth, and existence.

McCarthy is now 88. His last novel, The Road, came out sixteen years ago. He also wrote the screenplay for The Counselor (2013, dir. Ridley Scott), and some nonfiction stuff. My guess is that these two novels are likely the last we’ll get from him. But I hope not.

Here are two photographs of Cormac McCarthy playing pool in El Paso, Texas, in 1998:

 

A hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream | Blood Meridian

The question was then put as to whether there were on Mars or other planets in the void men or creatures like them. And at this, the judge who had returned to the fire and stood half naked and sweating, spoke and said that there were not and that there were no men anywhere in the universe save those upon the earth. All listened as he spoke; those who had turned to watch him and those who would not.

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

The universe is no narrow thing and the order with it is not constrained by any latitude of its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.

A passage from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

 

A Blood Meridian Christmas

Cormac McCarthy’s seminal anti-Western Blood Meridian isn’t exactly known for visions of peace on earth and good will to man. Still, there’s a strange scene in the book’s final third that subtly recalls (and somehow inverts) the Christmas story. The scene takes place at the end of Chapter 15. The Kid, erstwhile protagonist of Blood Meridian, has just reunited with the rampaging Glanton gang after getting lost in the desert and, in a vision-quest of sorts, has witnessed “a lone tree burning on the desert” (a scene I once argued was the novel’s moral core).

Glanton’s marauders, tired and hungry, find temporary refuge from the winter cold in the town of Santa Cruz where they are fed by Mexicans and then permitted to stay the night in a barn. McCarthy offers a date at the beginning of the chapter — December 5th — and it’s reasonable to assume, based on the narrative action, that the night the gang spends in the manger is probably Christmas Eve. Here is the scene, which picks up as the gang — “they” — are led into the manger by a boy–

The shed held a mare with a suckling colt and the boy would would have put her out but they called to him to leave her. They carried straw from a stall and pitched it down and he held the lamp for them while they spread their bedding. The barn smelled of clay and straw and manure and in the soiled yellow light of the lamp their breath rolled smoking through the cold. When they had arranged their blankets the boy lowered the lamp and stepped into the yard and pulled the door shut behind, leaving them in profound and absolute darkness.

No one moved. In that cold stable the shutting of the door may have evoked in some hearts other hostels and not of their choosing. The mare sniffed uneasily and the young colt stepped about. Then one by one they began to divest themselves of their outer clothes, the hide slickers and raw wool serapes and vests, and one by one they propagated about themselves a great crackling of sparks and each man was seen to wear a shroud of palest fire. Their arms aloft pulling at their clothes were luminous and each obscure soul was enveloped in audible shapes of light as if it had always been so. The mare at the far end of the stable snorted and shied at this luminosity in beings so endarkened and the little horse turned and hid his face in the web of his dam’s flank.

The “shroud of palest fire” made of sparks is a strange image that seems almost supernatural upon first reading. The phenomena that McCarthy is describing is simply visible static electricity, which is not uncommon in a cold, dry atmosphere–particularly if one is removing wool clothing. Still, the imagery invests the men with a kind of profound, bizarre significance that is not easily explainable. It is almost as if these savage men, naked in the dark, are forced to wear something of their soul on the outside. Tellingly, this spectacle upsets both the mare and her colt, substitutions for Mary and Christ child, which makes sense. After all, these brutes are not wise men.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept first ran a version of this post in 2010. I’m currently rereading Blood Meridian and the strange rare pockets of peace and goodness stand out to me more–the woman who tends the kid’s gunshot wound early in the novel, the cattle drovers who feed him and give him a Green River knife—and maybe even the weirdo hermit who offers him shelter. I’ll look for more moments of peace in all the violence.]

Books acquired, May Day 2021

Every year, within a week or two of Mother’s Day, our family likes to get a place in a proximal walkable beach town. Some place not too far a drive from our simple ranch home near the mighty northward-flowing St. Johns River, some place not too touristy, some place with nachos and beer and etc. St. Augustine Beach is a favorite and frequent spot, but this year we opted for St. Simons Island, a sea island off the Georgia coastline. We did not do a trip in 2020, for obvious reasons, but the wife and I have been fully vaccinated for weeks now, and we knew we’d be more or less outside for the entire weekend, so the fam drove an hour north. It was the first time we’d been out like this since March of 2020, when we stayed on a houseboat on Jekyll Island (the sea island immediately north of St. Simons). It was a nice, chill weekend—fried fish, golf carts, minigolf, the beach (with thousands of dead jellyfish to amuse the kids).

The Literary Guild of St. Simons was also having their annual spring sale–basically a Friends of the Library sale, if you know what that is. If you don’t: outdoors, lots of flat boxes of books, books, books. I ended up picking up more than I should have—I haven’t even done any of these stupid “books acquired” posts for the last three books that came in (including the lovely book I was reading this weekend, Rachel Eisendrath’s Gallery of Clouds)–but I have it on no small authority that these semi-annual Guild sales help fund most of the SSI library’s budget. (Also, as is often the case with these things, it was cheaper to add a book or two than not to.)

So: Top of stack to bottom:

The Finishing School, Muriel Spark. This is, I believe, the last novel Spark wrote. It came out in 2004; I read a bunch of her earlier stuff last year (and her early novel The Bachelors this March), but it was the mid-period novel Loitering with Intent that I thought the best. I’m not sure if this last novel has the best reputation, but Kakutani hated it, so maybe I’ll dig it. (Oh, and this edition is an ARC!)

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Patrick Suskind (trans. by John E. Woods). I loved the 2006 film adaptation. No idea if the book is any good, but the story is all kindsa fucked up.

This Is Not a Novel, David Markson. Look, I already own a copy. But I have a friend who doesn’t (I think).

Outline, Rachel Cusk. I think this is the first of these, right? Admittedly I avoided Cusk’s trilogy, which seemed overhyped (like Knausgaard, maybe?), but for a dollar I’ll give it a shot.

The Middle Ground, Margaret Drabble. A pristine first edition of a mid-period Drabble novel which is perhaps a take on Mrs. Dalloway. Drabble was nowhere on my radar until a few weeks ago when I read that the experimental British novelist B.S. Johnson included her on a list of (then) contemporary British writers he esteemed as writing “as though it mattered.”

Private Lives in the Imperial City, John Leonard. I mostly knew Leonard’s work as a reviewer for Harper’s—his column “New Books” was a go-to for me for a decade, and I wouldn’t presume to say I learned anything from him about writing book reviews (he would be horrified if he cared enough to be horrified), but I thought him an exemplary critic. But mostly fun to read. I didn’t even know about his New York Times column, “Private Lives,” which he wrote between 1977 and 1980. I had no idea what Private Lives was about—I just loved the spine (and then the great cover, featuring a Frank Stella painting)—but most of all I knew I wanted a book by John Leonard. I ended up spending a nice chunk of Saturday reading through the columns, which read like witty, snarky, intimate blog posts—stories about friends, relatives, exploits in New York and abroad. Leonard hates parties; Leonard hated Blow-Up; Leonard finds compassion for a loudmouth on a coast-to-coast flight. This might be the gem in the batch.

The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy. Hey. Look. I own it. But I don’t own it in first edition hardback, right? I recall it as my favorite of the so-called “Border Trilogy.”

Picked Up Pieces, John Updike. I’ve never been a big fan of Updike’s fiction, but I’ve always found something to admire in his criticism and nonfiction. He’s holding a turtle on the cover of this edition. The final section is called something like “One Big Interview,” and the last question asks him which animal he most admires, and he answers that it is the turtle.

I’m pretty sure that the Leonard and Updike (and probably the Drabble) all came from the same collection—there was basically a near-complete set of pristine first-editions of Updikes and John Cheevers, as well as a heavy dose of Philip Roths—all in impeccable condition, tidy jackets, no foxing, clearly read, but unmarked.

Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco. There was also a first-edition of Foucault’s Pendulum in hardback, which I should’ve picked up instead.

Cormac McCarthy’s Cinematic Trash

The above is an unsigned New York Times article published on 8 Nov. 1998.

Cormac’s Trash was released in 1999.

In a 2001 interview, producer Mylène Moreno suggests that the short film did not violate McCarthy’s privacy:

AC: You’re also showing the short “Cormac’s Trash,” that you produced and your husband Rafe Greenlee wrote and directed, about how the obsessed fans of the elusive, reclusive El Paso resident/writer Cormac McCarthy try to smoke him out, one even going so far as to go through his trash. How did that project come about?

MM: From the moment we arrived, Cormac’s presence loomed very large. There was always a lot of buzz about him. We lived near him and were always aware of his presence in the neighborhood, though we never saw him. He was Rafe’s favorite author. The film explores Cormac’s relationship to El Paso’s artists and its literary community. As a lawyer, Rafe was interested in privacy issues, and he takes the position in the film that he’s not going to cross the line — even though the film reveals that others probably have. He was careful about revealing the sorts of things found in Cormac’s trash. He didn’t show all of what was in there.

I think we should leave Cormac’s trash alone.