My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Here is one way to regard this new book about which no two critics can seem to agree. After a pair of fast-paced screenplay-novels (Cities of the Plain, No Country for Old Men) and a crowd-pleasing Oprah-crowned sentimental bestseller (The Road), not to mention a somewhat sermonic play (The Sunset Limited) and a screenplay proper (for Ridley Scott’s stylish and underrated thriller The Counsellor), Cormac McCarthy has finally returned to the manner of The Crossing, itself something of a throwback to earlier novels like The Orchard Keeper and Suttree: a mute, mysterious, intimidating, crowd-repelling late-modernist edifice, a dark monolith owing as much or more to Beckett as to Faulkner, like some rune-inscribed obelisk the rider chances upon amid dunes or a sunken freight whose purpose no diver can divine amid the night-blue deeps.
I parody the master but only to suggest this novel’s true merit. Disappointed reviewers have already delivered the spoiler: the suspense plot the opening pages set up—our salvage-diver hero is commissioned to explore a downed charter jet from which both the black box and one passenger are missing; his involvement subsequently makes him a target of the deep state—ends up going nowhere, is never explained or resolved. It exists only as a device to get him on the run, on the road, there to encounter the voices of roustabouts and private detectives and madmen and ghosts, to say good-bye to his grandmother in Tennessee, to succumb to paranoia on an abandoned oil rig in Florida, to camp out in a cabin in Idaho and on a Louisiana beach, and finally—here McCarthy tips his hat across the centuries to the novel’s progenitor, to the the man who reinvented the medieval romance as an inward journey—to live in a windmill in Spain.
To get evaluation out of the way, I like The Passenger better than The Crossing—it is funnier and swifter, less densely solemn in its peregrinating ruminations—but not nearly as much as the masterpiece Suttree, to whose Joycean-Faulknerian exuberance of language and invention it, akin to most novels not named Ulysses or Light in August, can’t compare. Like so many of the last or late novels by our Silent Generation masters—like Coetzee’s Jesus trilogy, like Morrison’s God Help the Child, like DeLillo’s The Silence, like Ozick’s Antiquities—it is a stark summing-up, an echo chamber and whispering gallery in which the old themes, the old images, the old questions recur in some final conflict-without-resolution. I wouldn’t recommend any of these books as the place to start with the authors in question.
In his lukewarm New York Times review of The Passenger—it’s very funny on McCarthy’s orthographical affectations—John Jeremiah Sullivan aptly invokes Edward Said’s theory of “late style”: the final work not as reconciliation and benediction, the author gently patting our heads as we file past his deathbed, but rather as a furious final renewal of the fight for meaning in a riven cosmos.
And if some or most of this book was written earlier, as early as the late 1980s, as rumor holds, it may only demonstrate that McCarthy’s elegiac fictions have been late almost from the start. And why not? He writes after “Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the sister events that sealed forever the fate of the West.” I quote from the novel’s free indirect discourse, its hero, Bobby Western, musing on how his father, a German-Jewish physicist, helped to invent the atomic bomb. As for the calamity of “sister events,” Western, himself a disappointed or failed physicist, bears the scars of his unconsummated love affair with his brilliant and beautiful younger sister Alicia.
Alicia, a schizophrenic math genius, killed herself in her 20s, a decade before The Passenger opens in 1980. A hunter encounters her swaying corpse amid the trees in the novel’s proem (“Tower of Ivory, he said. House of Gold”—that’s from the “Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” possibly by way of Joyce’s Portrait). To her, a “sister” novel, Stella Maris (more mariolatry, in this case the name of the mental institution where Alicia stays before her death), will be dedicated later this year. If McCarthy insists on associating this doomed and childless virgin with the Virgin Mary, Catholicism’s mother goddess, despite her being the product of a marriage between a Jewish scientist and a Southern Protestant, our most romantic glimpse of the adolescent ardor that captured Western’s heart alludes to a different female archetype entirely:
He crossed along a low wall of sawn blocks opposite the pool and sat as he had sat that summer evening years ago and watched his sister perform the role of Medea alone on the quarry floor. She was dressed in a gown she’d made from sheeting and she wore a crown of woodbine in her hair. The footlights were fruitcans packed with rags and filled with kerosene. The reflectors were foil and the black smoke rose into the summer leaves above her and set them trembling while she strode the swept stone floor in her sandals. She was thirteen. He was in his second year of graduate school at Caltech and watching her that summer evening he knew that he was lost. His heart in his throat. His life no longer his.
This prose will be overheated for some, but it’s the right temperature for me—better this torrid perversion than tepid, indifferently-written autofiction. But why Medea? Why not the similarly adolescent, similarly brother-loving Antigone? Or Electra, another daughter of a man consecrated to war? In any case, the novel overall, which also folds Vietnam into its roster of modern crimes through the testimony of Western’s veteran friend Oiler, seems to align with Alicia’s verdict on her father’s work, on the works of modernity and of men in general, as Western summarizes it in the final chapter:
What she believed ultimately was that the very stones of the earth had been wronged.
But this vision of humanity’s all-encompassing sinfulness can’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s read Blood Meridian, which, in its third epigraph, dates the catastrophe not to Auschwitz or Hiroshima but to 300,000 years ago, the earliest moment in history that gives evidence of one man scalping another. What’s new in The Passenger is McCarthy’s perhaps sentimental indictment of man qua man. Time, perhaps, for the boys carrying the fire (per The Road) to turn the mission over to the girls:
Fathers are always forgiven. In the end they are forgiven. Had it been women who dragged the world through these horrors there would be a bounty on them.
Somewhat puncturing this masculine idealism of the feminine, Alicia’s fellow Stella Maris inmate reports to Western:
She said that femininity encoded mandates that were far less forgiving than anything men were familiar with.
Hence, perhaps, Medea: that anti-Mary, that figure of murderous rather than nurturant maternity. Still, the novel’s kindest and most sympathetic character is Debussy Fields, Western’s transgender girlfriend, whose aria of becoming-woman (as Deleuze and Guattari might have it) is much the most compelling monologue in this novel full of ranters and ravers who sound off on the laconic protagonist:
I know that to be female is an older thing even than to be human. I want to be as old as I can be. Atavistically feminine. […] And then I woke up one night in the middle of the night and I was lying there and I thought: If there is no higher power then I’m it. And that just scared the shit out of me. There is no God and I am she.
Nihilism, Laura Miller complains of the novel. That’s true as far as it names one lack: none of the characters can identify any abstraction to which they might be loyal besides Debussy’s “feminine.” Western’s Buck Mulligan-like friend, the cynical Long John Sheddan, awaits the day the universe will be destroyed since we’ve made such a mess of it; Western calls him “a visionary of universal ruin” and, tagging him as a provincial diabolist, “Beelzebubba.” Meanwhile, the private detective Western hires and befriends in his paranoid travails, Kline, expatiates for pages, in some kind of late-life McCarthy-vs.-DeLillo showdown, on the Kennedy assassination. The mob did it, not the CIA, Kline explains, and, anyway, “with the exception of Bobby they were a pack of psychopaths.” Western asks Kline how this is relevant to his being stalked by the Feds for diving into the charter jet:
I have to say that this is a pretty engaging story. But I suppose what I’d like to know is what does it have to do with my problem?
This country is your problem.
Kline foretells, from the novel’s 1980 vantage, our own period of total technology, total surveillance, our total fusion with the machines at whose (and at whose tenders’) sufferance we live:
Electronic money. Sooner rather than later. […] There won’t be any actual money. Just transactions. And every transaction will be a matter of record. Forever.
Alicia at one point remarks that we draw pictures of the world we mistake for the world, pictures that, as Wittgenstein lamented, hold us captive: “Whether it’s a bull on the wall of a cave or a partial differential equation, it’s all the same thing”—the math and science fully and finally as arbitrary as the arts and humanities. So “nihilism” might be fair charge—and I agree with Miller than the novel’s most seemingly nihilistic character, the Thalidomide Kid, a punning dwarf with flippers for hands that Alicia hallucinates in her madness, very quickly overstays his welcome for all that we might compare him to his literary kin, the devils that appear in Goethe, Dostoevsky, and Mann.
But “nihilism”—a word that characterizes a state of disbelief, a state of mind—misses the element of action in human life and in the novel, a novel almost overloaded, like all of McCarthy’s, with precise descriptions of labor, with lovingly captured (if generally incomprehensible) technical jargons, with the meticulous evocation of motion and landscape. The novel has no plot because a plot is an abstraction while life just is. By the end of The Passenger, Western is still wandering, still journeying, just as Debussy Fields—I gloss her name as the (masculine) land melting into la mer, feminine of course—is still becoming-woman, asymptotically approaching an immemorial state of grace not to be found on earth, among men.
In The Sunset Limited, the character Black proposes Jesus as the remedy for suicide to a man bent on self-slaughter. As with the Gospel of Luke’s unrecognized Christ on the road to Emmaus or the mysterious “third who walks beside you” in The Waste Land, we might allegorically identify Christ as the novel’s missing passenger, if that doesn’t reek too much of the midcentury symbol-spotting style of neo-Christian criticism that was old hat by the time I went to high school. Either way, perhaps returning to his Catholic roots, McCarthy has by now apparently revised his recommendation and promotes Mary over her son. Yet in the novel’s final sentence, Western imagines himself dying and carrying Alicia’s beauty with him into death, “the last pagan on earth.” Why “pagan”? Because the pagan does overtly what the Catholic does surreptitiously: worship beauty as such, whether Mary’s or Medea’s.
“Incest is, like many other incorrect things, a very poetical circumstance,” pronounced the atheist radical Shelley—and McCarthy’s precursors in Southern Gothic, Poe and Faulkner, evidently agreed—because it proceeds from excess and defiance. It is also an extreme way for the poet to literalize the insight encoded in the act of making a metaphor: that everything is related to everything else, that somehow the world hangs together in a mysterious chain of love and death. The Christian reactionary Dostoevsky had his modern Christ, Prince Myshkin, say that beauty would save the world. Writing in a later hour of history, the hour that we and he have learned to mark as “after Auschwitz,” McCarthy fears or anyway knows that nothing will save the world. For this reason, he doesn’t deign to tell a story. But, on the cusp of his tenth decade on this earth, he has given us a late work of variegated and strange beauty anyway. I await Stella Maris.