By Cormac McCarthy
By Cormac McCarthy
The publication of Stella Maris only a month after The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy’s first novel since The Road in 2006, is just one of the odd things about this literary double album.
As albums go, what’s on offer is part new material and part greatest hits. In The Passenger we’re introduced to Bobby Western, a salvage diver operating out of New Orleans. It’s the year 1980 and things kick off with Bobby investigating the mysterious wreck of a plane submerged in the Gulf of Mexico. Mysterious because there seems to be a passenger missing from the sealed fuselage.
As any McCarthy hero could tell you, the world is no place for men who aren’t paranoid, which is a point that an amateur JFK assassination expert will later explain to Bobby. This is after some sinister suits (Feds, or maybe gangsters) visit Bobby and he has to go on the run, living off the grid and eating roadkill.
Chapters dealing with this main storyline alternate with the schizophrenic hallucinations of Bobby’s genius sister Alicia (their father worked on the Manhattan Project, which becomes a sort of intellectual original sin). It turns out Alicia committed suicide some years earlier and that the siblings were in love with each other in a quietly creepy way. Bobby then starts to go a bit crazy himself before winding up living in a windmill in Ibiza.
That’s it for plot. The business with the plane is a MacGuffin, an excuse to present a scrapbook of McCarthy’s folksy, faux-Biblical philosophizin’ about love and death and fate. Or, as Stella Maris sells it, God and truth and existence. The characters all sound pretty much the same, saying things like “All you can believe is what is. Unless you’d prefer to believe what aint.” Bobby’s story is that of the “last of all men who stands alone in the universe while it darkens about him. Who sorrows all things with a single sorrow.” This sounds bleak, but there’s always some worse revelation coming, as “Grief is the stuff of life”:
The world’s truth constitutes a vision so terrifying as to beggar the prophecies of the bleakest seer who ever walked it. Once you accept that then the idea that all of this will one day be ground to powder and blown into the void becomes not a prophecy but a promise.
Some readers will find this pretentious to the point of hilarity, but fans of McCarthy will eat it up. And to give the master his due, he’s very good at it. Weaving together rhythmically spare but ornately dictioned descriptions of life in survival mode gives his writing a texture that’s as much a signature as his apocalyptic visions of a universe collapsing into moral and informational entropy.
Stella Maris is the name of the sanitarium Alicia checks herself into, and the novel of the same name — which is marketed as a coda to The Passenger though it’s really a sort of prequel — takes the form of what amounts to transcripts of discussions between Alicia and one of the resident psychiatrists. Transitioning from one book to the other we move from the mechanics of oil rigs and vintage roadsters rendered in prose that reads like a handbook of some blue-collar, masculine user’s code, to the rarefied world of quantum mechanics and the philosophy of mind.
Stella Maris is certainly a more open-ended book, and it’s an openness that casts a shadow back onto The Passenger. Alicia thinks Bobby is brain-dead after being in a car accident, and we’re left to wonder if maybe he really has passed on to some twilight quantum phase of being, and that The Passenger was just the dream of a dead or dying man. Or perhaps the first book was all one of Alicia’s hallucinations, or the creation of a dismal end-times deity she dubs the Archatron.
There are few writers as skillful at carrying long stretches of a novel with nothing but dialogue, but even given McCarthy’s ability in this regard Stella Maris gets to be a bit much. What it sounds like is the 89-year-old McCarthy talking to himself, musing aloud on various big subjects and not coming up with much except that darkness is falling on the West, the human race, and the universe.
That said, McCarthy’s bleak vision is tragic but not depressing, as it’s driven by an ambitious sense of experimentation and engagement with the American literary tradition that few writers today would dare, much less be capable of. And if it’s to be his final chapter it’s fitting he avoids signing off on a climactic note, preferring to watch the sun go down in style.
Review first published in the Toronto Star, December 2 2022.