The Passenger, by Cormac McCarthy, Picador, 400 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1524712396
Stella Maris, by Cormac McCarthy, Picador, 192 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1447294016
‘Tell a dream and lose a reader,’ Henry James warned us, but Cormac McCarthy hasn’t been listening. For sixty years he’s been writing novels that, at critical moments, use dreams to spin parables of the unconscious and to give readers a murky sense of the mystery of existence. If this sounds portentous, well, it is ‑ in every sense. McCarthy’s dream sequences may be confusing asides within a stark and diligently executed realism, but they are the surer path to understanding his intent. No American novelist has a more desolate view of who we are and where we are headed, and the challenges of his books ‑ not just their use of dream but the archaic diction and free-falling sentences, the intricate descriptions and discontinuous narratives ‑ are necessary hurdles in our pursuit of his meaning. McCarthy has worked hard to find the right form for his vision. We must work hard to appreciate it, even though we may sometimes feel as lost as his characters.
Dream is cognate with myth, and McCarthy’s framing of the human experience extends the boundaries of his work to spaces rarely explored by contemporary fiction. The horsemen, mercenaries, drifters and prophets who move across the forbidding landscapes of his narratives tend to be archetypal figures rather than psychologically complex individuals. They relate to each other not with Jamesian delicacy but as if driven by forces outside their will. McCarthy’s unerring ear for colloquial speech, his sense of humour and his deft feel for the concerns of men who ‑ like himself you sense ‑ find meaning in mechanical processes and work with their hands can fool readers into thinking that his books are regional novels of manners. In fact, they tell stories that move from the particular to the universal via episodes that, as Denis Donoghue has put it, are ‘produced not to be interrogated but to be sensed’. They strive for a cosmic resonance in which the desires and motives of individuals fade, and the moral balance of conventional fiction shrinks to irrelevance. With McCarthy we are in an imaginative realm closer to dreamwork, which, as Freud defined it, ‘does not think, calculate or judge in any way at all; it restricts itself to giving things a new form’.
The new forms of McCarthy’s fiction have, as cultural context, American history, particularly that of the South and West, and the founding American myths of hardy individualism, westward expansion, and regeneration through violence. Up to now, his books have been set either in his native Tennessee or across the borderlands of Texas, Mexico and New Mexico. His fiction has evolved considerably over six decades, but from the beginning he has taken great pains to get the regional details right: the way people speak, the flora and fauna of landscape, the habits and rituals of a person’s profession, the behaviour of animals, the exactitudes of time and place. But just as his individual characters tend to yield to archetype, the realities of history and geography are subsumed by myth. And the dark side of myth at that. The arc of McCarthy’s work bends toward wasteland, apocalypse and extinction. The founding American stories are stripped bare and re-mythologised. Manifest destiny is debunked and reimagined in the bloodiest terms ‑ not as satire but as romance. We are in a specific corner of American literary territory here, the same ground occupied by Melville, whose bleak romanticism merged realism with the gothic and grotesque. No Emersonian celebration of self-reliance for McCarthy. His nightmarish narratives, like Melville’s tales of greed and destruction, question not just the American experiment and the illusion of exceptionalism but expand with Shakespearean authority into a profoundly negative assessment of our very existence.
Now in his ninetieth year, McCarthy has given us what are likely to be his final books, The Passenger and Stella Maris, companion novels that are his first published fiction since The Road appeared sixteen years ago. Though they break new formal ground and have a wider geographical sweep, their themes and preoccupations are familiar. Like Sheriff Bell at the end of No Country for Old Men, old age has not brought McCarthy comfort. ‘We are all of us unprepared for what is to come,’ Bell muses, ‘and whatever comes my guess is that it will have small power to sustain us.’ Likewise, there is little to sustain us, philosophically, in these new novels. McCarthy’s long career has only reinforced his belief, as one of his characters in Stella Maris puts it, ‘that there [is] an ill-contained horror beneath the surface of the world and there always [has] been. That at the core of reality lies a deep and eternal demonium.’
McCarthy’s vision has been grim from the beginning. His early books make for tough reading: incest, cannibalism, infanticide, necrophilia, serial murder. His first novel, The Orchard Keeper, written when he was in his twenties and published in 1965, is full of macabre gloom: a savage killing, a hidden corpse, friendship between a boy and a bootlegger who, unbeknownst to the boy, is his father’s killer. The debt to Faulkner is obvious, not just in the Southern gothic ambience but also in the novel’s nonlinear plot and rhetorical mix of low and high styles. We are not given access to the characters’ inner lives, though their often desperate actions take place in a doomed rural landscape that is described with exquisite skill:
The trees were all encased in ice, limbless-looking where their black trunks rose in aureoles of lace, bright seafans shimmering in the wind and tinkling with an endless bell-like sound, a carillon in miniature, and glittering shards of ice falling in sporadic hail everywhere through the woods and marking the snow with incomprehensible runes.
The heightened descriptions of nature are part of a critical theme. The novel opens with the image of a mangled fragment of iron fence that ‘has growed all up’ into the body of a tree ‑ the first of many metaphors in McCarthy’s oeuvre that pit civilisation and technology against a natural world that is ‘beyond the dominion of laws either civil or spiritual’, a metaphysical struggle that, in his universe, leads to violence and, ultimately, apocalypse.
Outer Dark and Child of God, published three and eight years later respectively, ratchet up the violence. The former has a horrifying account of a child’s throat being cut, the latter a series of murders by a pathological outcast who dresses up the corpses of his victims and has sex with them. The main characters in all three novels are ethically vacuous. They operate in an arbitrary world that has no moral compass, a brute, primitive environment where law and morality do not apply. And the absence of judgement extends to the narrator. The reader is not asked to think about what these scenes of violence mean. They are presented as still life, the viciousness on display as if the natural outcome of a primordial force that cannot be mitigated by human intervention.
These tendencies coalesce spectacularly in the 1985 masterwork Blood Meridian. I have not read a more powerful American novel. It is viscerally shocking, intellectually arcane, and written with great literary intensity. It inspires and disturbs. Based on the real-life exploits of a band of American mercenaries hired by Mexican authorities to eliminate Apaches in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, it follows this ragtag collection of ex-soldiers and gunmen (mostly through the eyes of a teenaged runaway known as the kid) as they indiscriminately murder and scalp not just Apaches but members of peaceful indigenous tribes and any Mexicans who get in their way. The violence is relentless. Even before this war party begins its mission, there are scenes of motiveless carnage: arson, senseless beatings, the gruesome slaughter of a private army by Comanches. The barbarity is simply presented and never judged, either by the characters themselves or by the narrator.
The basis for this suspension of moral comment can be gleaned from McCarthy’s descriptions of the band. Here is a typical passage:
They wandered the borderland for weeks seeking some sign of the Apache. Deployed upon that plain they moved in a constant elision, ordained agents of the actual dividing out the world which they encountered and leaving what had been and what would never be alike extinguished on the ground behind them. Spectre horsemen, pale with dust, anonymous in the crenellated heat. Above all else they appeared wholly at venture, primal, provisional, devoid of order. Like beings provoked out of absolute rock and set nameless and at no remove from their own loomings to wander ravenous and doomed and mute as gorgons shambling the brutal wastes of Gondwanaland in a time before nomenclature was and each was all.
A supercontinent formed 500 million years ago, Gondwanaland is a characteristic McCarthy reference that reminds us of the vast age of the earth against which our species blanches into insignificance. But it is more. Its shambling gorgons foreshadow the dream of the father in the opening pages of The Road, when he stands in a ‘great stone room’ and sees a horrifying creature staring into the light ‘with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders’. Our world began as a brutal waste and is destined to return to that condition after apocalypse has extinguished us all. And populating this incipient wasteland are ‘spectre horsemen’ ‑ men who, like the hitman Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, are identified as ghosts, characters who are both flesh-and-blood killers and outcroppings of what McCarthy elsewhere calls the ‘neuter austerity’ of the landscape, where ‘a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinships’.
This identification of character with the indiscriminate, primal malignity of nature finds fullest expression in Judge Holden, second in command of the gang and McCarthy’s most remarkable creation ‑ a seven-foot, hairless hulk of a man who is a linguist, botanist, chemist, crack rifleman, musician, nimble dancer, magician, and philosopher. Yet his collection of human accomplishments serves the purpose of making him seem anything but human. He never sleeps and claims he’ll never die. Without the least compunction, he tortures animals, murders and scalps the innocent, and sexually abuses children. Well-read and widely-travelled, he is a vehicle for McCarthy’s nihilism, speaking eloquently and often to his charges of the inevitability of violence and our inability to understand the world:
The truth about the world, [the judge] said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a muddled field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.
Moreover, he preaches, as we navigate this calamity, moral law is no help to us as it is ‘an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak’ ‑ a cynical pronouncement in no way softened by the book’s historical realism. The violence of the novel is not the cartoon violence of Tarantino but an accurate representation of the worst savagery men are capable of when all rules of law, conscience and morality are suspended. War, the judge says, is ‘the ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner’. What joins men together ‘is not the sharing of bread but the sharing of enemies”. His collective perorations, uttered in that specific time and place, are a gloss on the novel’s savage action and help us understand Blood Meridian as an anti-Western, a book that upends the paradigm of American exceptionalism and sees the country’s frontier history not as a triumph of individualism but an apotheosis of corrosive greed and unregenerate violence.
Yet to view McCarthy’s fiction simply as comment on American history and culture would be reductive. As rich in local detail as they are, the novels have a broader aim. America is itself archetypal, an exemplar of violent human behaviour that has emerged from prehistory and knows no national boundaries. The novels of the Border Trilogy ‑ All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain, published in the 1990s ‑ maintain this double sense. On the one hand these books are convincing tales of men (always men) traversing the scrupulously described borderlands of the US and Mexico as they pursue work, adventure or some sort of fulfilment. On the other, they position these men as figurative pilgrims like Melville’s Ishmael or Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown: characters navigating a shadow-space, a parallel literary universe where their desires and actions unfold in a larger, mythic pattern of frustrated effort and inevitable destruction.
All the Pretty Horses won the National Book Award and brought its author literary fame and some fortune after three decades of an impoverished bohemian existence. In some ways, the trilogy takes a new, softer line. In its protagonists, John Grady Cole and Billy Parham, McCarthy finally gives readers sympathetic central characters. They are polite, loyal, honest, considerate, and, in the right circumstances, loving. They are accomplished horsemen and no-nonsense cowhands. They are also restless. They move back and forth between the US and Mexico, crossings that drive the action of all three novels and allow McCarthy to use the differences between the two cultures for dramatic and ironic effect. But the trilogy is full of other, emblematic borders ‑ liminal boundaries between what we know and don’t know, between security and violence, between the literal space we mark and navigate and an unreachable world we glimpse only in our dreams.
And dreams there are aplenty: of horses and wolves, the living and the dead, madhouses and carnivals, pilgrims and gods. These dreams are often disturbing and hint at the folly of waking pursuits ‑ love, adventure, vengeance, justice. These young men have a fatal flaw: they are good-hearted. In a McCarthy novel, no good deed goes unpunished. In Blood Meridian, the judge pursues and murders the kid because the boy is the only one of the band to show clemency toward the victims. In No Country for Old Men, Llewellyn Moss returns to the scene of a broken drug deal to bring water to a dying man, thus revealing himself to the criminals who will track him down and kill him.
In matters of the heart and soul, Cole and Parham are destined to fail because they will not accept what a variety of hermits, ex-priests, gravediggers and other outcast seers keep telling them: that there is only one story, one path of the world. That path ‘is fixed by God and contains all consequences in the way of its going and outside of that going there is neither path nor consequence nor anything at all’. And the path leads only to tragedy. The men resist this advice as they journey but sense the truth in their dreams. So Billy, attempting to return a wolf to its natural habitat in Mexico in The Crossing, dreams of his murdered father ‑ though he has not yet learned of his father’s death:
In the dying light of that day he could see his father’s eyes. His father stood looking toward the west where the sun had gone and where the wind was rising out of the darkness … His father’s eyes searched the coming of the night in the deepening redness beyond the rim of the world and those eyes seemed to contemplate with a terrible equanimity the cold and the dark and the silence that moved upon him and then all was dark and all was swallowed up and in the silence he heard somewhere a solitary bell that tolled and ceased and then he woke.
We know from early in each of these novels that they will not have a happy ending. Not just dreams but, as in the passage above, diction, rhythm, tone and imagery create, as in Shakespearean tragedy, a textual sense of doom long before active misfortune strikes.
Yet how we root for these guys! And what wonderful drama happens in the lead-up to calamity. Throughout the trilogy, the dialogue is pitch perfect, the action sequences are cinematic and breathtaking, the pace is heart-pounding or stately as needed. The set pieces ‑breaking a horse, capturing a wolf, hunting wild dogs ‑ and the landscapes of west Texas, New Mexico and El Norte are brilliantly realised. Even the minor characters are memorable, beneficiaries of McCarthy’s ability to capture a life in a few sentences:
The old man was sitting at the table in his hat. He’d been born in east Texas in eighteen sixty-seven and come out to this country as a young man. In his time the country had gone from the oil lamp and the horse and buggy to jet planes and the atomic bomb but that wasnt what confused him. It was the fact that his daughter was dead that he couldnt get the hang of.
With writing like this, McCarthy, like Don DeLillo, subverts his own nihilism with love for his characters, an uncanny mimetic gift, and a clear sense of joy in his craft.
Yet the fatalism never fades. And an odd sort of fatalism it is, too ‑ not a Calvinistic denial of free will but an acknowledgment that what will happen will happen in an inevitable sequence that it is foolish to try to alter. And the outcome will generally be unfair, violent or sorrowful. Or all three. There is one path, one story. In All the Pretty Horses, when Cole falls in love with a Mexican girl and goes to the girl’s grandaunt to make his case as suitor, the duenna, as prelude to rejecting his request, gives him a lesson in Mexican history and culture. She then says that her father had a great sense of the connectedness of things and
claimed that the responsibility for a decision could never be abandoned to a blind agency but could only be relegated to human decisions more and more remote from their consequences. The example he gave was of a tossed coin that was at one time a slug in a mint and of the coiner who took that slug from the tray and placed it in the die in one of two ways and from whose act all else followed, cara y cruz. No matter through whatever turnings nor how many of them. Till our turn comes at last and our turn passes.
We will come across this trope several times in McCarthy’s work. It could be the judge’s turn of a card or Chigurh’s toss of a coin, but his most evil characters justify their actions with images from games of chance. ‘Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing,’ Chigurh tells Moss’s wife just before he kills her. ‘Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased.’
The trilogy’s themes of borders, fate, journey, and the relation between dream and reality come together profoundly at the end of Cities of the Plain, in an epilogue that serves as coda for all three books. After John Grady Cole has paid for his naiveté with his life, his friend Billy Parham drifts for many years through west Texas, rarely employed and ultimately homeless. As an old man he ends up sleeping beneath an underpass in a wasteland ‘somewhere in central Arizona’, plagued by disturbing visions, dreams of his dead brother and sister, and the dire conclusion that ‘in everything that he’d ever thought about the world and about his life in it he’d been wrong’. He shares a few crackers with a fellow drifter, a man ‘of no determinable age’ who turns out to be the last of the trilogy’s long line of prophets, and for the next twenty pages or so this unnamed seer, echoing Dante, tells Billy how, in the middle of his life, he had a dream that prompted him to try to draw a map of the path of his life that he might understand it.
Unpacking these twenty pages would take a book in itself. McCarthy likes to use monologue and extended dialogue to articulate ideas that drive character and action. In this case, dream and path and story are the oft-repeated keywords. The drifter’s dream contains a dream within it, full of primitive imagery and mythic messaging. Its moral: we have no chance of understanding ‘the unmappable world of our journey’. Nothing is fixed; all is confusing. But in dreaming, the vagabond tells us, we are closer to the truth of our predicament:
Our waking life’s desire to shape the world to our convenience invites all manner of paradox and difficulty. All in our custody seethes with an inner restlessness. But in dreams we stand in this great democracy of the possible and there we are right pilgrims indeed. There we go forth to meet what we shall meet.
What we shall meet, McCarthy tells us over and over again, is confusion, grief and, inevitably, extinction. In the decades since the trilogy, his views have not softened. We all know about No Country for Old Men and The Road, which were made into Hollywood movies (one pretty good, one poor), brought their author pop culture status and were put on school curricula in spite of their violence and apocalyptic gloom. Since then, McCarthy has been hanging out at the Santa Fe Institute, a cross-disciplinary scientific research institute in New Mexico, engaging with scholars on, among other subjects, physics, neuroscience and the nature of the unconscious. What he’s learned has only reinforced his nihilism, and his latest novels give us the baleful news in fresh and remarkable ways.
Together, The Passenger and Stella Maris tell the stories of siblings Bobby and Alicia Western, whose physicist father helped develop the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and who are disturbed by his legacy as well as their love for each other, which may be incestuous. Though formally very different, the novels tell the same back story from different points of view. It doesn’t seem to matter which you read first, though I suspect, given that The Passenger was published six weeks ahead of Stella Maris, that McCarthy has that sequence in mind. On the other hand, the action of Stella Maris is chronologically earlier and the book is packaged first in the American box set edition. So take your pick.
The Passenger begins with the discovery of Alicia’s suicide, presented as prologue. Ten chapters follow, all of which, bar the last, have the same structure: an italicised flashback in which the mentally ill Alicia interacts with a macabre, deformed, foul-mouthed hallucination named the Kid (echoing Blood Meridian) and his troupe of ventriloquist dummies and vaudevillian performers, followed by a more conventional narrative from a decade or so later detailing Bobby’s work as a salvage diver in New Orleans. This bifurcated approach draws attention to the differences between sister and brother: her withdrawal from surface reality and immersion in the worlds of higher mathematics and schizophrenic fantasy versus his job, bohemian New Orleans friends, and interest in fast cars; her claim that twentieth century science confirms her belief that the world itself possesses a malignant will versus his resistance to her metaphysical musings and his half-hearted attempts to cheer her up. Alicia’s sections all take place in her head. Bobby is part of the street life of New Orleans, a setting brought to life with characteristic richness:
He walked back through the Quarter. Past Jackson Square. The Cabildo. The rich moss and cellar smell of the city thick on the night air. A cold and skullcolored moon driving through the skeins of cloud beyond the roofslates. The tiles and chimneypots. A ship’s horn on the river. The streetlamps stood in globes of vapor and the buildings were dark and sweating. At times the city seemed older than Nineveh.
Stella Maris tells Alicia’s story more clinically. Like The Sunset Limited, McCarthy’s 2006 ‘novel in dramatic form’, it is all dialogue—a series of conversations between a psychiatrist and Alicia not long before her suicide. Its form makes it a useful vehicle for the ideas that drive both books: the possibility that God has abandoned the world and been replaced by a malevolent deity; the failure of language and rational enquiry to make sense of reality; the inscrutable power of the unconscious; and the irony that our greatest mathematical and scientific achievements will inevitably lead to our extinction. As Alicia says offhandedly to her doctor,
Anyone who doesn’t understand that the Manhattan Project is one of the most significant events in human history hasnt been paying attention. It’s up there with fire and language. It’s at least number three and may be number one. We just dont know yet. But we will.
At first, it appears as if Bobby’s narrative offers an opposing perspective. After all, he is a man of action, comfortable in the world of Formula 2 racing, guns and deep-sea diving. Alicia stays huddled in her bedroom at home or within the psychiatric facility to which she has committed herself, the eponymous Stella Maris. Bobby is fully engaged with the quotidian world. But as the action of The Passenger unfolds, he gradually withdraws from that world and succumbs to his sister’s views.
The plot that pushes him over the nihilistic brink is what you might call a thwarted thriller. In the book’s first chapter, Bobby and his colleague Oiler are exploring a submerged charter jet, crashed in the Gulf of Mexico. Inside the fuselage, they find eight dead passengers, still strapped in their seats. Later, when they check the manifest, they realise one body is missing, along with the pilot’s flight bag. The mystery of the missing body grows dangerous: Oiler is possibly murdered and Bobby is pursued by sinister representatives of various government agencies who are involved in some sort of high-level cover-up. He becomes paranoid, quits his job, and retreats to a shack on the water. Edging ever closer to madness, he staggers along the beach during a coastal storm, visited by Alicia’s hallucinatory Kid, who plays Fool to his Lear. Soon after, he goes on the run, heading ‑ well, west, of course: Colorado, Montana, Idaho. Sleeping in his truck and bathing in creeks. Holing up in an abandoned farmhouse, where he has troubling dreams and writes letters to his dead sister. By now the reader knows that the thriller machinery is a MacGuffin. Bobby has become that familiar McCarthy figure: Pilgrim. Wayfarer. Passenger. Like the central character in the 1979 novel Suttree (McCarthy’s most autobiographical), Bobby hits the road pursued by guilt, grief and metaphysical torment. By the end of the book, he has fled the US altogether, retreating to the island of Formentera off the coast of Spain, with its human history stretching back to the Bronze Age, where he sits in dark churches and walks the headlands, looking out at the Mediterranean, mourning Alicia and mourning the world:
In the distance the thunder rolled across the dark horizon with a sound like boxes falling. Unusual weather. Lightning thin and quick. The inland sea. Cradle of the west. A frail candle tottering in the darkness. All of history a rehearsal for its own extinction.
Bobby Western now achieves the archetypal status implied by his name, as the breadth of his terror moves beyond America to encompass all Western thought and culture, from the ancient Greeks to the götterdämmerung of the Manhattan Project.
What is there to offset this certainty of Armageddon? If there is any counterweight to McCarthy’s darkness it is the presence of love. The Road, in spite of its post-apocalyptic horrors, is the most optimistic of his novels because of the boy, whose innocence and trust spark his father’s love. The poignancy of their exchanges glows brightly in a dead world. In the Border Trilogy, Billy Parham loses his brother in one book and his best friend in the next, but his efforts to save them offer a slender redemption. Likewise, John Grady Cole’s doomed pursuit of two different women leads to terrible suffering and a violent death, but the depth of his love, naïve as it may be, shimmers on the page.
But the love in these new novels is compromised. Alicia tells the psychiatrist how she was passionately attracted to her brother from the age of fourteen. How desperately she wanted to sleep with him. Still wants to. She denies that she did so but relates a lascivious dream in which his face rises from between her legs ‘all shiny with girljuice’. One of the letters Bobby writes to her in the Idaho farmhouse begins ‘My beloved wife’. Throughout both novels, this mutual obsession is both redemptive and traumatic. Their love is the only consistent positive in their progressive mental deterioration, but its insurmountable obstacles lead only to grief. Alicia dies young and Bobby lives on, haunted. Her beauty becomes the only thing that sustains him, and in the last sentence of The Passenger he hopes that on the day of his death he will ‘carry that beauty into the darkness with him’. By this point, the reader feels that whether they have slept together or not is irrelevant. What McCarthy seems to be doing is creating an important, loving connection that is morally ambiguous, emotionally impossible, and, perhaps, a corollary of meaninglessness, like Quentin Compson’s desire for his sister in The Sound and the Fury.
So despite their new settings and formal adventurousness, these new novels are driven by the same dark vision McCarthy has offered us for decades. Truth comes to us only in grief, despair or madness. Or in moments of clarity that ultimately lead to those states. At one point Alicia relates how, at the age of twelve, she came to an understanding of the world’s origin:
In the beginning always was nothing … Black fires. Like the fires of hell. Silence. Nothingness. Night. Black suns herding the planets through a universe where the concept of space was meaningless for want of any end to it. For want of any concept to stand it against. And the question once again of the nature of that reality to which there was no witness. All of this until the first living creature possessed of vision agreed to imprint the universe upon its primitive and trembling sensorium and then to touch it with color and movement and memory.
Not just classic McCarthy sentiment (though lifted from eighteenth century idealism) but classic McCarthy prose. And this can be a problem, perhaps inevitable in a novel where only the characters speak. As spiky and despairing as Alicia’s voice can be, it often modulates into the familiar voice of her creator. Or comes out of her mouth that way from the beginning. It also happens in The Passenger. Bobby’s voice sometimes drifts into pedantry. This is especially true when the siblings speak, say, of mathematical Platonism or the discovery of the quark or Schrödinger’s wave function. McCarthy’s Santa Fe interests can rise too close to the surface ‑ as carefully attached to the novels’ themes as these passages and their ideas are. At one point Alicia, talking about the atavistic power of dreams, speaks of the failure of most psychiatrists to understand the unconscious. This long passage contains sentences identical to sentences in an article on the origins of language McCarthy published six years ago in a Santa Fe Institute publication. The ideas are fascinating but often intrusive. Far more effective, imaginatively, are the passages that give us the dreams, visions and hallucinations rather than the theories behind them. The tragedy of Alicia and Bobby is most moving when we are allowed glimpses into their unconscious.
Novelists who grapple intellectually with issues of life, death, and the nature of reality and who create characters who articulate the complexities of these issues within their narratives run the risk of the ideas overwhelming the human drama. It’s not surprising that McCarthy’s favourite novels ‑ Moby Dick, The Brothers Karamazov, Ulysses and The Sound and the Fury ‑ are, to one extent or another, passionately engaged with deep moral and philosophical issues (not surprising either that they are challenging reads). These great books get the balance right. So too does Blood Meridian. But at times The Passenger and Stella Maris are overwhelmed by the intellectual density of their abstractions. It is as if McCarthy, on the brink of his own departure into the void, occasionally lacks the patience to subdue his own voice and trust completely in the dreamwork that is his hallmark. But I’m not complaining ‑ these are wonderful novels and fitting capstones to a remarkable literary life. We are the better for having them on our shelves. And if they fall short of Blood Meridian’s mythic grandeur or the Border Trilogy’s haunting dreamscapes, well, that is less an indictment of these latest novels than testament to the triumph of McCarthy’s finest work in a long career of consistently giving us some of America’s greatest fiction.
Kevin Stevens is a novelist and critic and divides his time between Dublin and Cambridge, Massachusetts.