‘The Passenger’ is Cormac McCarthy’s first novel in 16 years
Discretion suited the author just fine, but like anything fragile in McCarthy’s universe, it would soon die.
“All the Pretty Horses,” the first volume in his Border trilogy, flirted with the bestseller list for months, then won the National Book Award for fiction. McCarthy didn’t attend the ceremony in New York to receive his award, but the damage was done: he was becoming famous.
Nothing, however, could have prepared the author for the resounding success of “The Road,” which extended its apocalyptic themes to the literal end of civilization. This skimpy story about a father and his little boy walking through a hellish landscape has mesmerized — and terrified — readers. The novel won a Pulitzer Prize, which made perfect sense, but it also won a spot at Oprah’s Book Club, which felt like a tear in the space-time continuum, because it meant McCarthy would give, for the first time , a television interview. . There, finally, we saw the timid and gentle writer, less disdainful of public adoration than inert towards it.
For the past 16 years, McCarthy’s growing fan base has been circling, picking up crumbs of information about his next project. This month, the moment of unveiling has arrived with a storm of publicity that is sure to attract even more readers.
“The Passenger” features McCarthy’s signature markings, but it’s a different species than what we’ve spotted before. In these pages, the author’s legendary violence is infinitely reduced to the shock of subatomic particles.
Bobby Western, the contemplative and haunted hero of the novel, works as a salvage diver. We find him at 3:17 a.m. off the Gulf Coast. He and a small crew examine a private jet resting on the ocean floor. After his partner opens the door with an underwater torch, Western swims into this new grave:
“He made his way slowly down the aisle above the seats, his tanks dragging above his head. The faces of the dead inches away,” McCarthy writes. “People sitting in their seats with their hair flowing. Their mouths open, their eyes devoid of speculation.
A few minutes later, back in the dinghy, Western shakes his head. “There’s nothing wrong with this.” The bodies do not appear to be affected by a crash. And the pilot’s flight bag and the data box are missing in the cockpit.
Western’s partner asks, “You think there’s been someone there before, don’t you?”
For several days, Western hears nothing in the news about a plane crashing in the Gulf. Then two men with name tags appear in his apartment in New Orleans. They want to know how many bodies he saw on the plane because “it looks like a passenger is missing.”
McCarthy has gathered all the chilling ingredients for a mystery in a locked room. But he jumps beyond the confines of this ancient form just as he reworked the apocalypse in “The Road.” Indeed, “The Passenger” sometimes looks more like Franz Kafka’s “Trial”. Western knows he is suspected of Something, but we don’t tell him what. The two men who interrogate him repeatedly never drop their formal politeness – never throw a bolt-action pistol like Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men” – but Western knows his life is in danger and he must flee.
But first, he ruminates, and this sustained rumination creates a very different novel than the heart-pounding thriller suggested by the opening. Instead, we’re drawn deeper and deeper into Bobby Western’s troubled soul. His father worked with Robert Oppenheimer to create the first atomic bombs, and Western still suffers from some kind of genetic guilt for unleashing such horror on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In a vain attempt to come to terms with this legacy and other ghosts, Western chats with a collection of barflies who seem to have drifted away from other classics. There’s Debussy Fields, a trans woman who does an outlandish impersonation of Brett Ashley from “The Sun Also Rises.” And there’s Sheddan, who looks like he never got over playing Falstaff in a college production of “Henry IV.”
“A pox on you,” he said. “You see in me a vast, unstructured and baseless ego. But frankly, I don’t even have the remotest aspirations of the heights of self-esteem that the Squire commands.
The style – a mixture of deep contemplation and rapid dialogue, always without quotes and often without attribution – is pure McCarthy. But so does the irritating tendency towards grandiosity. “Evil has no alternative plan. He is simply incapable of accepting failure,” he wrote. “The last of all men who stands alone in the universe as it darkens around him. Who afflicts all things with one sorrow. From the pitiful and exhausted remnants of what was once his soul, he find nothing out of which to fabricate any divine thing to guide him in these last days.
The Book of Job could get away with language like that, and perhaps Melville can pull it off on a particularly dark day, but here he risks coming across as comically overworked.
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Brooding and handsome, Western “sinks into a darkness he can’t even understand.” The women want to save him; men want to befriend him. And why not? Working as a rescue diver sounds exotic and cool. He got a scholarship to study physics at Caltech. He was a racing driver in Europe and he’s still roaring in his Maserati. (He considers the trident symbol on the car’s grille to be “Schrödinger’s wave function. Of course.) And—yes, seriously—he lives on thousands of gold coins he’s found. buried under her deceased grandmother’s house.
But on the unsexy side of the ledger, Western is still pining for his little sister, Alice, a math prodigy who wanted to carry her baby. Apparently, during his brief, tumultuous life, they shared more than a love of complex equations.
(That shuffling noise you hear is Hollywood directors tiptoeing away.)
One of Western’s friends tries to frame this incestuous relationship in terms of Greek tragedy, but McCarthy suggests it’s geeky tragedy. Throughout the novel, we are subjected to intervening chapters about Alice and a menagerie of Vaudeville freaks that inhabit her psychotic hallucinations. The leader of these characters is the Thalidomide Kid, who torments her in conversations so bizarre and relentless that I started to wish I was on that plane at the bottom of the gulf.
Bizarrely, in early December, McCarthy publishes a related short novel titled “Stella Maris” – the name of a mental hospital – which is composed entirely of dialogue between Alice and a doctor. I doubt there are more than a few hundred people in the country who can follow Alice’s free allusions to theoretical physics and advanced mathematics – certainly not her doctor. But the biggest mystery is why this material, which depends entirely on “The Passenger”, is published separately.
On the other hand, it may be a mercy. “The Passenger” is already burdened with a reference to aliens, a Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory, and enough arcane science to snuff out a Higgs boson. McCarthy cannot go long without referring to the works of Dirac, Pauli, Heisenberg, Einstein, Rotblat, Glashow, Teller, Bohm, Chew, Feynman and other scientists. Unless you majored in physics, your string theory is going to get tangled up with your Yang-Mills. It’s the kind of novel in which people wonder, “What happened to Kaluza-Klein?”
Later, we are told that a Swiss mathematician and physicist named Ernst Stueckelberg “worked out a good deal of the theory of the S-matrix and the renormalization group”.
I’m glad to hear that it worked, but I still have no idea what it means.
When McCarthy descends from Mount Olympus and writes in his close, precise voice about the Western carving of the ordinary activities of his time, the novel suddenly buzzes with real depth. But many pages consciously strive to explore big ideas about the nature of reality. The explanations are so superficial that we never see the light – just the shadows on the cave wall. Unlike Richard Powers’ brain novels, which create the illusion that you might actually understand neuropsychology, genetics, or artificial intelligence, “The Passenger” throws readers into a black hole of ignorance.
Near the end, a friend told Western, “We still don’t know what this is about.”
Ron Charles book reviews and writing Book club newsletter for the Washington Post.
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