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The Fate of the Western’s World

Cormac McCarthy, who hadn’t published a novel since 2006, has suddenly become as prolific as James Patterson. October saw the publication of The Passenger, and its companion work, Stella Maris, appeared earlier this month. Reviews of the former have been respectful but not exactly raving. Ron Charles of the Washington Post concludes, “The Passenger casts readers into a black hole of ignorance.” In the New York Times, John Jeremiah Sullivan determines that McCarthy’s style “teeters” into “straight badness” and pretentiousness. And on the website of record, Max Bindernagel calls it a “very good book” that “might be too cerebral for even more dedicated readers.”

The Passenger depicts the wanderings of Bobby Western, a race-car driver turned salvage diver who makes a baffling discovery when exploring a submerged airplane. Soon he’s being pursued by mysterious agents, his assets are frozen, and his passport is revoked, so he goes on the lam. But what Western really finds underwater is a red herring: The novel’s true focus is the wreckage of Bobby’s past, and particularly the grief he feels over the suicide of his sister, Alicia. It is a bold, albeit frustrating, move by McCarthy to bait the reader with a paranoid existential thriller and switch it for an elegiac work about a man mourning his mentally ill sister.

An implausibly beautiful and brilliant paranoid schizophrenic in love with her brother, Alicia appears throughout The Passenger: in the opening paragraph when her dead body is discovered, in Bobby’s memories, and especially in scenes when she hallucinates about a wise-cracking, deformed grotesquerie called the Thalidomide Kid (sometimes, like the protagonist of Blood Meridian, just called the Kid). In Stella Maris, she is elevated to the central voice.

It’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying Stella Maris who hasn’t first read The Passenger; but readers who enjoyed the questions the first work raised and didn’t mind the lack of answers will appreciate this slender companion. The new novel depicts the weeks leading up to Alicia’s suicide in the form of transcripts of her therapy sessions at a clinic in Wisconsin, from which the work gets its title. Over the course of their conversations, Alicia and her therapist, Dr. Cohen—a much less sinister interlocutor than the Kid—discuss her family’s history, her suicidal tendencies, her shameless lust for her brother. And as with The Passenger, there are long passages about quantum mechanics, nuclear engineering, the lives and works of great thinkers.

Although Stella Maris covers a lot of the same ground as its sibling, its new setting and more focused perspective prevent it from becoming redundant. There are times when Alicia’s voice comes across as McCarthy showing off some shiny new idea he’s been studying, but at its best the dialogue clarifies the nature of Alicia’s intellectual abilities and her understanding of the dyad’s most unusual character, the Kid. What’s more, by showing us the depth of Alicia’s disordered desires, the novel gives us a new perspective of Bobby and fleshes out scenes only sketched in The Passenger.

The dialogue form also subdues some of McCarthy’s worst habits, including what the Post‘s Charles calls his “irritating tendency toward grandiosity” and the clunky sentences that B.R. Myers refers to as “andelopes.” Unfortunately, Alicia’s genius gives McCarthy an excuse to have her speak in pretentious prose poems such as “The docs don’t seem to consider the care with which the world of the mad is assembled. A world in which they imagine themselves questioning when of course they are not. The alienist skirts the edges of lunacy as the priest does sin. Stalled at the door of his own lunacy.” His distracting elision of certain contractions is joined by a new habit of fusing words like a cost-conscious newspaper editor: axemurderer, parkinglot, tennisballs. It is a sadday indeed when one of our mostadmired prosestylists so mars the writtenword.

Because both novels deal with many big ideas, they tempt readers toward sweeping interpretations. Little touches do the same. The main characters’ names, for one thing: In keeping with the book’s emphasis on mathematics, Alicia explains that her father chose names based on characters used as placeholders in complex equations. (McCarthy indulges in anachronism here: Bob and Alice were not introduced in equations until 1978, long after Alicia’s suicide.) This element hints that the characters are figures in a problem for the readers to solve. And their last name, Western, isn’t merely a reference to the kind of work readers have come to expect from McCarthy (though they shouldn’t from these books), but a suggestion that their fates and preoccupations are bound up with an entire civilization. Their father, after all, helped develop the atomic bomb.

The important role of quantum mechanics opens other possibilities. Sam Sacks posits that the works are informed by the Many Worlds theory and that the stories they tell “are equally true, but they run in fateful parallel.” It’s true that Alicia gestures toward the Many Worlds theory when she explains an experiment that demonstrates “a single particle can go through two separate apertures at the same time.” But where Sacks sees discontinuities between the works, I see merely ambiguities in their timelines and differences in their emphases. The Passenger, for example, barely mentions that Bobby falls into a coma after crashing a race car in Europe, an event that is central to Alicia’s therapy sessions in Stella Maris.

For all of the big questions these novels ask, I was most interested in a more subtle mystery. Alicia tells Dr. Cohen that were she to commit suicide, she wouldn’t want her body to be discovered because “if you died and nobody found out about it that would be as close as you could get to never having been here in the first place.” Yet in the first paragraph of The Passenger, we learn that “she had tied her dress with a red sash so that she’d be found.” What changes her mind—what makes her want to be discovered after all?

Conservative fans of McCarthy’s previous works praise his depiction of human frailty and imperfectability as well as his Christian references, and Stella Maris includes breadcrumbs that lead down these interpretative paths. The title of the novel and the psychiatric clinic, Latin for “star of the sea,” is also a title for the Virgin Mary (not to mention a weird name for a place in Black River Falls, Wis.—Stella Flumen would be more appropriate). Alicia is born the day after Christmas; her body is discovered on Christmas Day, hanging from a tree like a macabre ornament. And there are frailty and imperfectability galore. Incest, for one thing, as well as Alicia’s beliefs that “the world has created no living thing that it does not intend to destroy” and that “at the core of reality lies a deep and eternal demonium.”

Although such details hardly make these novels a Christian story, they do nudge us back to the question of why Alicia finally wants her body to be discovered. There may be a clue in her answer to Dr. Cohen’s question, “What do you think is the one indispensable gift”—she replies, “Faith.” Not a faith in Jesus, but perhaps another resurrection of sorts.

Stella Maris

by Cormac McCarthy

Knopf, 208 pp., $26

Christopher J. Scalia is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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