My grandmother was younger than I am now when Cormac McCarthy published his first novel. In the time since, he's solidified his reputation as one of the last living heirs to the Southern Gothic tradition of American literature, a foster son to Faulkner, O'Connor, Dickey, and others. With last week's release of McCarthy's first book in over 15 years, one of the living literary giants has made this much clear: If in the five decades since his debut you think you know Cormac McCarthy, you'd be dead wrong.
Much like many of McCarthy's novels, The Passenger begins enigmatically. But unlike many of McCarthy's novels, it begins with an overtly religious (though ironic) scene. A beautiful young woman, dead at her own hands, hangs from a tree on a snowy Christmas night. The man who finds her body regards her like a statue in a church. He pauses in reverence before kneeling for a moment in prayer. The life and significance of this improbable saint is just one of many mysteries that imbue the pages ahead.
The narrative alternates between the lives of two siblings. The main storyline follows Robert Western, a salvage diver in New Orleans. Extended flashbacks follow the last days of the girl found dead, Western's sister Alicia. Their parents met while working on the Manhattan Project and died prematurely as a result of that hazardous work. Both brother and sister are also, in their own strange ways, far-flung victims of the atomic bomb. Western wanders through life listlessly, haunted by his family's contribution to such destruction; Alicia's tale chronicles her prolonged, bizarre conversations with the voices in her head, a menagerie of vaudevillian freaks. She inherited her family's intelligence and, she believes, the nuclear-induced genetic abnormalities that caused her schizophrenia. McCarthy seems to suggest that the destruction caused by atomic weapons may have begun at Hiroshima, but it didn't end there.
Lacking his sister's genius, Western has long since abandoned his own study of physics. He spends his time idling through life, working odd jobs, living off an implausible inheritance, and brooding over life's deepest questions. He's a modern Hamlet in Dixieland. Like his Danish counterpart, he's both indecisive and inordinately fixated on a female family member. His affection for Alicia is frequently described as incestuous, though his feelings are something entertained from afar. She remains for him a kind of muse. Not unlike the children in a Salinger story, Alicia endures as a symbol for things Western can't really name: innocence, purity, or perhaps genius.
Like protagonists in McCarthy's No Country for Old Men and The Road, Western finds himself caught in a conflict for which there is no ultimate explanation. He is hired to dive and examine a plane crash off the Louisiana coast, and though there is no sign of exit from the wreck, one passenger is missing, as is the plane's black box. Later, his threadbare apartment is ransacked before he is approached at a bar by two men in suits with questions about the scientists who worked with his father. It gets stranger still.
These conspicuous dots stand in need of connection. In his feeble attempts to explain whatever or whoever is behind these happenings, Western seeks out a private investigator who becomes more of a confidant than a hired hand. The two men's prolonged conversation about the JFK assassination is a microcosm of Western's immediate problems: What, if anything, can connect all these occurrences in Western's life? Is there a narrative that can tie everything together? And of course, those questions are themselves microcosms of Western's real existential worries: Does anything connect this happenstance universe we live in? For all the advances in science, are we really any closer to comprehending the deep-down things that make and uphold this fragile world?
In our quest to make sense of things, McCarthy wants to first take seriously the lack of sense in the world. In that vein, McCarthy invites comparisons to another Southern writer, Walker Percy. Like Percy, McCarthy's most recent novels express concern with apocalyptic evil and the place of good, if flawed, men in a world that often seems absurd and cruel. The Passenger is no exception. Perhaps there are signs in the world that help us answer the question of evil and the good man's place in front of it. But as Percy once said addressing a different question, the signs are ambiguous.
One place to explore those deeper questions is the world of dreams, which features prominently in The Passenger. And though McCarthy hasn't published a novel in nearly two decades, he hasn't been silent. His 2017 essay "The Kekulé Problem" concerns, among other things, the way that the subconscious imagination informs our conscious reasoning. The 19th century chemist August Kekulé puzzled over the molecular structure of benzene for some time before having a dream about a snake eating its own tail. His subconscious imagination prompted his conscious insight that the benzene molecule must be circular.
McCarthy's interest in the anecdote has less to do with the science than it does with the nature of our imagination. In brief flashes, the subconscious seems to want to help us solve our problems and make sense of mysteries. But in The Passenger, dreams cloud rather than clarify. Western has several dreams throughout the novel, each of which draws attention to his problems instead of solving them. If dreams can help delineate the structure of a molecule, perhaps dreams can also give us signposts to guide us through existential problems. But for Western as for us, those signs are ambiguous.
All that said, for a novel that has as much theoretical mathematics as previous McCarthy novels had bloodshed, one question remains: Does such a novel work? The answer here is also ambiguous. Novels that deal first with big ideas and only then populate those ideas with characters and a plotline almost always fail. McCarthy unequivocally avoids that trap. The best stories are driven by strong characters, and here The Passenger succeeds as well as any other. But if the book's plane wreck was missing a passenger, the conspicuous stowaway in this novel is the heavy intellectual baggage that clearly occupied McCarthy's mind while writing. McCarthy has written a very good book, and at nearly 90 years old he's one of the only Americans to ever do so at such an advanced age. But The Passenger might be too cerebral for even more dedicated readers, and McCarthy only rarely dips into the hypnotizing prose for which he will be remembered.
Curious to see if The Passenger stood on its own, I decided to review this book without reading its sequel, Stella Maris, forthcoming in December. If its merits are anything like those of its twin, Stella Maris will point toward those deep-down, hidden things that come to the surface only in dreams and, perhaps, in great stories. It will hopefully give, as only great literature can give, signs and guideposts to help make sense of life's deepest questions. As McCarthy would doubtless agree, however, the signs are ambiguous.
by Cormac McCarthy
Knopf, 400 pp., $30
Max Bindernagel is a teacher who writes from Washington, D.C.