Guy Stagg

The Solitary Road

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy, Picador, 2022, pp.400, £20 (hardcover)

Stella Maris, Cormac McCarthy, Picador, 2022, pp.192, £20 (hardcover)

As writers near the end of their career, they have three options. The first is to keep producing work until the last moment, often returning to familiar subjects and squeezing new interest out of old ideas. The second is to officially retire and spend their last years in silence, perhaps collecting honorary degrees and lifetime achievement awards. It’s admirable to keep writing right up to the end, but perhaps more admirable to know when to stop. And both options are better than the third: trying to keep writing, only to be defeated by failing abilities.

The first of these options was taken by John Updike, the second by Philip Roth. For a long time it seemed as if Cormac McCarthy, their near contemporary, was facing the third. Since he published The Road in 2006, there has been a screenplay and a long essay about language and the unconscious. In addition, there were rumours that he was working on two, three, or even four different projects, but none of them had publication dates. And, because McCarthy ranks among the most reclusive of modern authors, there was not even a steady stream of festival appearances and podcast recordings.

All this was ironic, given that, for the first half of his career, McCarthy was little known. Though the Border Trilogy, published in the 1990s, brought prizes and bestseller status, he only became famous with The Road, which won a Pulitzer, earned a place on Oprah’s book club, and was made into a film starring Viggo Mortensen. It was not the first novel to imagine an apocalyptic future, but its vision of America after an environmental calamity has since inspired dozens of eco-dystopias. Yet McCarthy’s new fans have had to wait sixteen years for another novel, until, at the age of eighty-nine, he published two in quick succession.

The novels can be read separately, but the material is so closely related it makes sense to consider them as a pair. The first of these, The Passenger, tells the story of Bobby Western, who lives in New Orleans and works as a salvage diver, performing recovery operations for commercial clients. One morning he dives off the Mississippi coast and enters the cabin of a crashed jet, to find nine drowned bodies buckled to their seats. However, the tenth seat is empty, the tenth passenger missing, along with the pilot’s flight bag and the plane’s black box.

Bobby witnessed something secret when he plunged down into the dark water, but he does not know what it means. However, the secret is important enough that unseen forces begin hunting him: first searching his home, then freezing his bank accounts, and then cancelling his passport. The mystery of who is chasing Bobby – perhaps a criminal organisation, perhaps a government conspiracy – is linked to the mystery of the missing passenger. In a conventional thriller, these two mysteries would drive the plot forwards, but Bobby has little interest in what happened to the jet, let alone working out who is chasing him. One character even asks – ‘When are you going to take this seriously? When are you going to take steps to save yourself?’ – and yet the real mystery of this novel is why Bobby cares so little about the dramatic situation he finds himself in.

The plot of The Passenger resembles McCarthy’s 2005 novel, No Country for Old Men. This told the story of Llewellyn Moss, a young man who chanced upon a drug deal gone wrong and took the bag of cash left behind, only to be chased by the police and the drug cartels. That book began life as a screenplay, and even though McCarthy enriched the material when turning it into a novel, he retained the plain style and pacy story. What’s more, the protagonist was another of the cowboy heroes who have populated his novels since the Border Trilogy – courageous and determined, if not always honest. These protagonists spend most of their time at the lower ends of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: they want food, shelter, safety; they need to cross some inhospitable landscape; they have little time for larger questions about beauty or meaning. Such protagonists are a good fit for McCarthy’s narrative style, as he typically writes in a distant third person, shut out from his characters’ thoughts and feelings. These must either be expressed in speeches – hence his fondness for blue-collar philosophers and loquacious drunks – or else guessed via a semaphore of eating, spitting, sleeping and smoking.

However, Bobby Western is a far more complicated figure. His father was a member of the Manhattan Project; his sister, Alice, was a schizophrenic maths prodigy sent to an asylum at the age of twenty. Bobby himself was clever enough to study physics at Caltech, but not clever enough to stop his sister from falling in love with him, or from taking her own life. The truth about their relationship is revealed over the course of the book, explaining Bobby’s apathy towards the pressures of the plot. ‘If all that I loved in the world is gone,’ he asks at one point, ‘what difference does it make if I’m free to go to the grocery store?’

All the same, Bobby makes a half-hearted attempt to escape, pinballing from a lonely shack in the swamplands of Louisiana to the midnight beaches of Ibiza, from an oil rig off the Florida coast to an abandoned barn during a winter in Idaho. As ever, McCarthy’s writing about place is immaculate, summoning the loneliness of solitary figures scattered over the immensity of the American continent:

The fire leaned in the wind and the seawater hissed in the burning wood. He watched it burn to coals. The embers flowed and faded and flowed and bits of fire hobbled away down the beach into the darkness. He knew that he should wonder what would become of him.

That said, Bobby spends most of his time among the garrulous barflies of New Orleans’s French Quarter, with many pages given over to their freewheeling conversations: a mix of elaborate jokes and shaggy- dog stories, as well as the occasional conspiracy theory. The cast is an improbable collection of drifters, drunks, trans performers and private detectives, recalling McCarthy’s mid-career novel Suttree, which was set among the outcasts and misfits on the banks of the Tennessee River. That novel was much longer and looser than the author’s other works, relying less on plot than Joycean excesses of language and the picaresqueadventures of its characters. The sprawling shape suited the comedy and made it a favourite among many McCarthy fans, but such interludes fit less comfortably into the high-stakes plot of The Passenger.

Similarly, though much of the dialogue in these scenes is funny, a false note is sounded whenever Bobby discusses particle physics. It’s the kind of material that contemporary novelists rarely touch on, and McCarthy reminds us why, struggling to make the science lessons read naturally. Instead, no matter how much slang he throws in, these passages come across as awkward, with the author determinedly inserting his own interests:

In the meantime what was happening in the real world was Weinberg had figured out that Glashow’s Z particle had to be right. Everybody else hated it. The problem was that it was too massive. Just fucking enormous. The Z boson is heavier than some actual atoms.

But these lectures raise a larger problem. Quantum mechanics and advanced mathematics; New Orleans drunks and a schizophrenic sister; the nuclear bomb and the missing passenger – how does all this fit together? The truth is, we reach the end of The Passenger with more questions than answers: who stole the papers belonging to Bobby’s father, how did Bobby’s colleague Oiler really die, and what happened to his cat Billy Ray? Taken together, these different strands give the novel a miscellaneous feel, with various recurring interests from across McCarthy’s career, assembled into a single plot that cannot quite sustain them.

The most confusing parts of The Passenger feature Bobby’s sister, Alice (who rechristens herself Alicia, a name nobody else uses). She is a character in the mould of Ludwig Wittgenstein or Alexander Grothendieck – the unconventional mathematician namechecked in Stella Maris, who helped to create algebraic geometry, and then gave up the subject to live like a hermit in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Alice went to university while still a child, and was later invited to join Grothendieck’s prestigious research institute in Europe. Meanwhile her behaviour includes most of the clichés we associate with genius: staying up all night to work, forgetting to wash or eat. She also experiences synaesthesia, reads four or five books a day, and is even a world expert on antique violins. Yet with each new hyperbole, she becomes less and less interesting – unique, perhaps, but hardly human.

Alice has experienced hallucinations since the age of twelve. She is visited by a cast of freakish characters, under the leadership of a dwarfish figure with flippers for hands named the Kid. McCarthy describes these encounters in a series of italicised passages placed between Bobby’s chapters – mostly long conversations with the Kid, who blends witty wordplay with taunting questions. Writing about derangement is difficult, because like drug trips and dreams, the material is often too involved or idiosyncratic to sustain a reader’s interest. A little goes a long way, but these passages recur regularly because of McCarthy’s refusal to enter his character’s minds, meaning that, if he wants to articulate Alice’s ideas, he must use these demented Socratic dialogues. However, despite the jagged brilliance of her exchanges with the Kid, it’s exhausting to spend so much time in the echo chamber of Alice’s thoughts.

The same technique is used more successfully in Stella Maris, which consists of transcripts from a series of conversations between Alice and a therapist named Michael Cohen. Their conversations are held in the Stella Maris psychiatric hospital in Wisconsin, where Alice has been committed. Chronologically the book is a prequel, taking place before the events in The Passenger, but it was published second in the sequence and described by publishers as a ‘coda’. In fact, Stella Maris borrows so much material from The Passenger that they may have once formed the same project, and it also offers a key to understanding that first novel.

Alice is the main focus of Stella Maris, and the conversations circle round her distant relationship with her father and intimate relationship with her brother. They also discuss particle physics and the higher levels of mathematics, and return several times to questions of epistemology. These discussions read less awkwardly than in The Passenger, in part because the novel’s format is more unusual, dispensing with most narrative or description to resemble the script of a play. In fact, Stella Maris could be called a novel of ideas, with intellectuals discussing abstract subjects in a didactic fashion, without giving these concepts a symbolic counterpart in the characters or events. That said, for Alice, verbal intelligence can only take you so far, and she argues that there are entire regions of thought closed to those without an understanding of maths.

Words form the borders to most books, yet Stella Maris seems more interested in what lies outside those borders. This was also the case with ‘The Kekulé Problem’, the long essay McCarthy published in 2017, which asked why the unconscious seems to communicate via metaphor and dream, rather than in language. The essay’s title referenced the famous nineteenth-century chemist August Kekulé, who was trying to work out the structure of the benzene molecule. One day he dreamed of the ouroboros – the ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail – and realised that themolecule must be shaped like a ring. Why, McCarthy wonders, did the unconscious not simply tell him this directly?

According to ‘The Kekulé Problem’, the unconscious is an ancient biological function, whereas language is a comparatively recent social construct. The unconscious is more familiar with images and metaphors than words and sentences – an argument Alice repeats as her own towards the end of Stella Maris. And it’s an idea that McCarthy incorporates into The Passenger, not only in Alice’s hallucinations, but also in those moments when his prose imitates the vatic utterances of a mystic or prophet:

Here is a story. The last of all men who stands alone in the universe while it darkens around him. Who sorrows all things with a single sorrow. Out of the pitiable and exhausted remnants of what was once his soul he’ll find nothing from which to craft the least thing godlike to guide him in these last of days.

Such passages create a series of powerful images, only loosely related to the story taking place around them, but instead seeming to draw from the primal imagery of a dream, as if McCarthy were writing straight out of the unconscious.

For Alice, the unconscious knows more than we do. What’s more, it can navigate the highest realms of science more easily than the logical mind – though from the outside this may resemble magic or madness. Towards the end of Stella Maris, she claims: ‘I think that [maths is] magical if you don’t understand it. Then as you realise that there is a clear sense in which you will never understand it it becomes magical again.’ However, according to the Kid, the futility of any attempt – scientific or artistic – to comprehend reality explains why Alice gave up mathematics and ended her own life:

She knew that in the end you cant really know. You cant get hold of the world. You can only draw a picture. Whether it’s a bull on the wall of a cave or a partial differential equation, it’s all the same thing.

Art, like science, is simply groping in the darkness. This is surely the reason McCarthy refuses to solve the mystery of the missing passenger, leaving Bobby shut out from the conspiracy that decides his own life. Never knowing enough, never understanding it all – that is the point of The Passenger.

The Road offered one model for imagining the future; The Passenger and Stella Maris offer another. Though the novels are set between the 1970s and 1980s, many of the ideas discussed still dominate the maths and physics of this century. However, the contrasting forms of the two books suggest that the author is unsure how best to address those ideas, and taken together they resemble a first draft, or an incomplete attempt to solve a difficult problem. That problem is the challenge of expressing concepts that reside outside language – the boundary towards which both Alice and Bobby are travelling. And McCarthy himself is a passenger on that journey, neither retiring into silence, nor repeating old work, but instead breaking new ground, so strange and new that few people will want to follow him there. But I suspect that McCarthy would feel more comfortable on this solitary road, moving towards a destination he alone knows. Let us hope there is time enough to reach it.


Guy Stagg grew up in Paris, Heidelberg, Yorkshire and London. The Crossway is his first book and is an account of his ten-month walk to Jerusalem. It was shortlisted for the inaugural DRF Award in 2016 and since then has won the Edward Stanford Travel Memoir of the Year 2019, as well as being shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize 2019, the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2019 and the Somerset Maugham Award 2019. The Crossway was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week.

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