Cormac McCarthy’s First Books in 16 Years Are a Genius Reimagining
Cormac McCarthy, who won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Prize, is set to publish his first works of fiction in 16 years. Credit – Beowulf Sheehan
Cormac McCarthy, now 89, has won both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prizewhose work is often compared to Moby-Dick and the Biblespent more than two decades as a senior researcher at Santa Fe Institute thinking group. The institute’s list of operating principles (which he authored) reads in part: “If you know more about a subject than anyone else, we want to talk to you.”
With his two moving new novels, the companions The passenger and Stella Maris, it’s clear that McCarthy, best known for delivering raw and gory stories about morality and depravity, was inspired by his time at the think tank to speak to the world’s leading mathematicians and physicists . His first works of fiction to appear in 16 years begin in familiar territory but push his ambitions to the very limits of human understanding, where math and science are still just theory.
In The passenger, the first of two books, Bobby Western is a 37-year-old deep sea rescue diver operating primarily in the Gulf of Mexico – a dangerous but lucrative job not unlike exploring an alien planet. One night, Bobby and his diving partner receive a strange assignment: a small airliner has crashed into the water off Pass Christian, Mississippi, and they must dive 40 feet below the surface to assess the situation. When the couple find the wreckage, they encounter nine bodies sitting curled up in their seats, “their hair flowing.” Their mouths open, their eyes devoid of speculation. In addition to the strangely intact fuselage, other things are out of place. The pilot’s flight bag is missing. The plane’s black box was carefully removed from the dashboard. And a 10th passenger, listed on the manifesto, has completely disappeared. Bobby’s partner is scared. “You think there’s been someone there already, don’t you?” he asks.
Soon, Bobby is mobbed by men in suits – agents of an unnamed government entity – returning their badges and asking him questions. Then his friend falls into a dive and does not come back up.
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In many ways, Bobby resembles Llewelyn Moss, the protagonist of McCarthy’s 2005 novel There is no country for old people: laconic, capable if a bit unhappy, and the subject of dangerous intrigues outside his scope. The difference is that Bobby also has the intelligence of the books. His father was a scientist on the Manhattan Project who worked with Oppenheimer et al. while they perfected, as Bobby’s college friend Long John puts it, “the design and manufacture of huge bombs for the purpose of incinerating whole towns full of innocent people as they slept in their beds”.
Bobby gave up physics to travel around Europe as an intermediate race car driver before starting his career in diving. Both pursuits appeal to him because they offer him momentary relief not only from his own intelligence but also from his grief. Long John diagnoses the last integral component of Bobby’s character: “He is in love with his sister. But of course it gets worse. He is in love with his sister and she is dead.
McCarthy alternates chapters of The passenger between the mystery in Bobby’s hands and the conversations his younger sister Alicia – the brightest of a family of prodigies, who died by suicide nearly 10 years before – has with characters from her schizophrenic hallucinations. Their leader, whom she has come to call “the thalidomide child”, is a bald, scarred imp about 3 feet tall, with “fins” instead of arms. (“It looked like he was born with ice tongs.”) The Kid mocks Alicia in strange idioms between discussions of time, language, and perception. From one of his linguistically withering diatribes: “Well, mysteries abound, don’t they? Before we get bogged down too deeply in the accusatory voice, it might be worth remembering that you can’t twist what has yet to happen. Fans of McCarthy’s work will agree that the villain of this novel is far more vocal than There is no country for old peopleis Anton Chigurh. (“To call.”)
Narratively speaking, the book is more interested in expanding the scope of its own mystery than solving it. Bobby’s sections show him avoiding the plot altogether – he mostly eats lunch with friends and converses with them about his past, his physicality, or his philosophy. Don’t come here for a plane crash thriller, but the pages turn with remarkable ease. From the initial mystery of a missing person, the novel explodes like an atomic chain reaction to the very face of God, at the intersection of mathematics and faith.
Does that sound like a lot to you? He is. The passenger it also happens to be a masterpiece, an unsolvable equation left on the blackboard for the more daring to ponder. Readers have been waiting years for this novel, which McCarthy has teased from time to time, predating The road, which he published in 2006. It is his most ambitious work, or perhaps a better word would be the weirdest. But it is maintained with wit and a aloud humor, which can be rare in his other novels (see the apocalyptic violence of blood meridian. And it’s really fun to read cover to cover, although readers who come to this book because they enjoyed an airport paperback edition of The road during a short flight, it may be wide-eyed and blink.
Stella Maris, the slimmer companion, due out in December, is just over 200 pages of PassengerThe late sister Alicia’s dialogues with her psychiatrist after she becomes institutionalized towards the end of her life, suffering under the power of her own intellect. It offers some additional clues, but mostly deepens the various mysteries offered in the first novel. “The math,” she tells her doctor, who struggles to keep up, “is ultimately a faith-based endeavor.”
In all of his books, McCarthy is a gearhead, a man obsessed with the hardware and the workings of things. There are no planes and cars in The passenger, only “JetStars” and “1968 Dodge Chargers with 426 Hemi engines”. A person does not look at his watch; they look at their Patek Philippe Calatrava in white gold. There are entire sections that could read almost like home repair or car maintenance instructions: “The teeth had started coming off the group gear until the box seized up, then the rear u-joint came uncoupled and the driveshaft rattled across the hall…” It was said that when McCarthy visited the set of the film adaptation of All the pretty horses, he spent most of his time with the prop guy talking about guns.
So it makes sense that at this point in his career, the author is pushing his chips and trying to figure out the clockwork of reality itself. As BachThe concertos of , these triumphant novels leave the realm of art and encroach on science, aiming for a Platonic point beyond our calculations where all spheres converge.
It’s rare to see a writer use the tools of fiction to make a real contribution to what we know, and can know, about material existence. In other words, the ideal audience for these books is Fields Medal recipients, but they are still a privilege and a hoot for the rest of us to read. And if we can’t understand everything McCarthy writes about, we suspect he might.
Mancusi is the author of the novel A philosophy of ruin.