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Unsalvageable Parts: Diving Into The Wreck With Cormac McCarthy
Jim Hilton , December 3rd, 2022 09:49

Two new books from the venerable Rhode Island novelist prove to be vintage Cormac McCarthy – therein lies the problem, finds Jim Hilton

Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan

Published within a month of each other, The Passenger and Stella Maris are Cormac McCarthy’s first novels since The Road in 2006. Considering how firmly that last book seized hold of the zeitgeist, with George Monbiot in The Guardian calling it “the most important environmental book ever written,” anticipation around these new releases has felt muted. Pan Macmillan’s all-caps announcement of A GLOBAL LITERARY EVENT can’t quite make it feel like one, and there is perhaps a general intuition that the now 89-year-old McCarthy is not the writer 2022 needs.

Since publication, responses have been warily deferential. Some reviewers have expressed minor disappointment mixed with awe, while others have found in the new material an excuse to pay vicarious homage to the McCarthy of Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy. Some keen online defenders have suggested that the project is so complex and esoteric that it will take years for its true significance to become apparent, making any present attempt at evaluation pointless (a cop-out surely?). But there’s been no-one, that I’ve found, willing to argue that The Passenger and Stella Maris are late masterpieces in the McCarthy canon. Or that they offer anything radically different from what has come before, or even truly deserve reading.

The Passenger is part conspiracy novel, part post-war family saga. Set mainly in 1980s New Orleans, it follows Bobby Western, a physicist-turned-race-car-driver-turned-salvage-diver, as he makes half-hearted attempts to swerve the shadowy G-men investigating him and lingers on the painful wreckage of his past. Amongst this wreckage is the original sin of a father involved in developing the atomic bomb, and the suicide of his younger sister Alicia, a mathematics prodigy. Her death and their incestuous obsession with each other are set up early on. Alicia then becomes the focus of Stella Maris, which imagines her final months in a mental hospital in Wisconsin via interviews with a psychologist – told through pure unmarked dialogue.

There’s a reprisal of some favoured themes here: incest, connectedness to the American landscape, and the lone figure who must weather the cold shoulder of the universe. The things that bring people to McCarthy’s fiction, the desire to go somewhere dark, the sensation of suddenly stumbling across a beautiful alien-like sentence, still apply. And the flaws that make his writing anathema for many still apply too. McCarthy is uninterested in the acts of women. He’s unfunny, and at times seemingly incapable of lightness of touch.

What’s new is the foregrounding of McCarthy’s interests in complexity science and mathematics, a world he’s become more closely involved with since 2014 as a board member and senior fellow for the Santa Fe Institute. Bobby and Alicia Western, through their respective fields of physics and mathematics, are humans stood at the outermost limits of the knowable world. The view from up there is sublime, we gather, but the void interminable. This is hardly new territory for McCarthy, but now he has data to back it up: S-Matrix theory, topology, and all manner of specialised nomenclature to hammer us with. The problem is that in practice, these ideas feel undigested. They form hard obstinate clumps in the novels that fail to drive the action and which actively hamper it. The plot, the characters and their attachments, feel faint and even naively-sketched next to the sharp machinery of ideas.

The published books appear to be the result of a lengthy revisions process. They existed in readable form as far back as 2015, when David Krakauer – head of the Institute and long-time friend of McCarthy – was able to give the enthusiastic and disheartening teaser that here we could expect a “full-blown McCarthy 3.0”. But the manuscript for The Passenger apparently dates back much further, and is something McCarthy had been working on since the 1970s. Its concerns and points of reference feel deeply bedded in writing of that era, in what Elizabeth Hardwick called the “literature of paranoia”. And at times you feel like you’re reading something rediscovered: less a historically-set novel than one conceived and constructed around the America of forty years ago. In his TLS review, George Berridge points out the parallels with Don DeLillo and notes the novelty of meeting a “Cold War McCarthy” fretting about government spooks and psyops.

There’s no use-by date on Cold War anxiety. These things needn’t appear passé. But a long, unprompted diatribe about the JFK assassination can’t help but seem clunky and redundant when it’s been done so many times before, and better. This passage lands like a strange meteor in a conversation between Bobby and the affable lawyer Kline, who for some reason possesses an advanced understanding of ballistics. And for all its readability, it feels entirely self-contained, with no rhyme or reason for its occurrence.

In his most recent novels, McCarthy has devoted more and more space to dialogue. No Country for Old Men was originally conceived of as a screenplay, and in the same year as The Road, he published The Sunset Limited, “a novel in dramatic form”. Dialogue forms a significant part of The Passenger and all of Stella Maris. But across both, it shares the problem of being almost entirely one-sided. One character is in the know, with roving and intricate ideas to communicate, while the other plays the subdued listener who puts forward occasional requests for clarification but is essentially unequipped to intervene. In other words, there is no drama to these exchanges. They feel like lectures masquerading as dialogue.

One gruelling sequence in The Passenger sees Bobby explaining the history of quantum mechanics to an interested subaltern, Asher – who only appears in the novel for the purpose of this one riff. “Gauge theory”, “W particles”, “the Z particle”, “a mass of forty GeVs”, “Glashow’s SU(5) theory” – it goes on for pages. Mixed in with much boyish smirking, it’s tiresome stuff: “Asher sat with his pencil between his teeth. Neat, he said”. And the sheer factual content accumulated makes you stop to wonder whether McCarthy actually sat down to write it, or worked from a verbatim transcript of a conversation with one of his Santa Fe colleagues – a method he previously adopted for dialogue in The Road.

Even when discussions tend away from analytical weightlifting, lop-sidedness persists. With Bobby’s friend John Sheddan – a Falstaffian conman and sybarite who addresses Bobby as "Squire" – we feel we are in the company of a beloved creation. Through Sheddan, McCarthy permits himself to luxuriate in ornate expressions and set off on rollicking tangents on whatever subject appeals, while Bobby listens in tight-lipped admiration. These long meanderings would be forgivable, and perhaps even enjoyable, if Sheddan were only as likeable as McCarthy clearly imagines him to be.

What most of these characters have in common is the will to communicate their ideas at all costs, which means that when they find their jag, they risk sounding interchangeable and all slightly McCarthy-like. Alicia in Stella Maris serves the same purpose as Bobby, Kline and Sheddan, and becomes a mouthpiece for the authorial deep-dive. The nature of language, of madness, faith, the dream-life of dolphins, violin design, Bertrand Russell’s romantic liaisons: nothing’s off limits. The fruits of exploration can be fascinating, yet they feel chintzy compared to the scale of work not undertaken. The mental toll of a sexual attraction between Alicia and her elder brother goes unexamined. We are supposed to look kindly and uncritically on this relationship and experience the tragedy of its impossibility.

If there’s something to admire about The Passenger and Stella Maris, it is McCarthy’s commitment to viewing human events through the prism of deep time and space. The search for a long view or wide-angle shot in which human life is given some relation to the immensity beyond is a laudable one and perhaps not attempted enough in fiction. But it also pulls McCarthy in too many directions. In trying to cover so much ground, to face down so many Big Questions, he neglects the descriptive level at which his writing sings. The most captivating passages all occur in the gaps between episodes, between meetings, when Bobby is simply moving about the country or his apartment as he puts out food for Billy Ray the cat. On his way to Idaho and sleeping in a truck, Bobby wakes up “in a milky light where the glass was sifted over with a thin skift of snow”. The simple pleasure of language discovery (what is a ‘skift’?) is enough to make us feel like children again, comforted that the world is larger and more nameable than we can ever know.

But in novels so crammed with information, there’s not much time left over for the tender attention of language towards things. The Passenger and Stella Maris will no doubt be welcomed by the literary scholars who have set up camp around McCarthy’s fiction and rely on it for food and fuel. But for the rest of us, they make heavy unrewarding work. At its worst, The Passenger feels like a clearing house for unaffiliated passages and characters that McCarthy couldn’t bear to bury. The warmth and sorrow he wants to convey shine through only weakly, intermittently. And even with Stella Maris’s book-length coda, the story of Bobby and Alicia Western feels – still – unfinished.