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    book covers of The Passenger and Stella Maris

    Cormac McCarthy’s Christ-Haunted Characters

    Alan Noble reviews Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger and Stella Maris.

    By Alan Noble

    March 21, 2023
    • Tom Crotty

      Thank-you to Professor Noble for his review. In the midst of The Passenger myself, I am finding it a bleak, sometimes hard book to read, so I am encouraged by the review to keep at it. The characters' extended dialogue about physical theories of reality, with their arcane scientific references, wearying as I found them, do make a little better sense to me now as a record of some mathematical/scientific efforts to understand and explain reality. And I agree that reality, in all its beauty and tragedy, is what the artist McCarthy is bent on describing. In the shadows of Hiroshima and Auschwitz, two events that are given as the pre-conditions for the character Bobby Western's existence, it is clear science alone will never succeed in comprehending or representing the deepest truths of reality, even as its capacity to destroy us expands with each passing day. Coincidentally, I happen to be reading as well Miguel de Unamuno's Tragic Sense of Life. McCarthy even makes passing reference to Unamuno (p. 27 of The Passenger). Science, says Unamuno, is a "cemetery of dead ideas", and so it felt as I read McCarthy's dialogue and text describing the to me arcane theories of eminent physicists. As much effort and study McCarthy must have put into these descriptions, I am sure he has a more than passing familiarity with Unamuno's thought and his theory of life. It is a tragic vision of reality in which life, including faith and feeling, and reason are necessarily in uneasy and even painful tension. Both are necessarily present in our lives, as Unamuno says, as "two millstones that grind upon the soul". I suspect that McCarthy's books are made to make us uncomfortable, to grind our souls perhaps, and thereby attain some hard-won clarity of vision, understanding. This tragic vision, this tragic sense of life is one I think McCarthy can relate to. I'll keep reading.

    Cormac McCarthy once said that “books are made out of other books.” The Passenger and Stella Maris, his two latest novels, are made out of other books. Characters make allusions to Milton, Dante, Chesterton, and Kant, among many others. But the heart of the novels belongs to Hamlet, a text quoted and alluded to multiple times: the philosophical introspection, the contemplation of suicide, the struggle for certainty and order, the fear of the devil and of what might exist on the other side of death. And like Hamlet, the novels ultimately form a tragedy. In the end, all that remains is love, but it is an unfulfilled love.

    The Passenger begins with the suicide of Alicia Western in the snowy woods, but the remainder of the novel revisits her life. Alicia hallucinates characters, engaging in long dialogues with them, particularly a bald dwarf with flippers for hands named the Kid. From the time she was twelve, these characters have put on shows to entertain and distract Alicia. For her, these visions are something other than hallucinations. There is talk about the characters possibly being “sent” by someone to help Alicia. Near the end of The Passenger, the Kid even visits her brother, Bobby, in a dream. The mannerisms of the Kid are so consistent in both interactions that the reader is left wondering if the Kid does have some otherworldly existence. McCarthy is once again blurring lines between the natural and supernatural.

    Most of The Passenger tells the story of Bobby Western, a salvage diver, and his discovery of a sunken plane – fully intact, apart from a missing passenger and black box. Mysterious agents pursue him, seeking information from him which he does not have. Eventually the IRS confiscates all his worldly possessions and he is forced to flee to avoid arrest. We never learn who is chasing Bobby, or why.

    Nobody catches him. There is no iconic villain like the Chigurh in No Country for Old Men or the Judge in Blood Meridian. There is only paranoia, conspiracy theories (including a long discussion of the Kennedy assassination), pursuit, bureaucracy, and helplessness. It feels more like The Trial by Kafka than like McCarthy’s earlier books.

    book covers of The Passenger and Stella Maris

    Stella Maris goes back to a period before Alicia’s suicide when she committed herself to a mental institution. The entire novel is a series of dialogues between Alicia and her therapist about math, physics, epistemology, psychology, death, suicide, desire, and hallucinations. Gone are McCarthy’s richly described landscapes and his meticulous depictions of mundane actions. For the most part, it works. And on first read, Stella Maris feels like the superior novel, with all its fascinating arguments about the nature of reality. But Stella Maris also improves The Passenger. Once you finish you’ll want to go back and reread the first novel.

    At the center of both novels is an incestuous attraction between Bobby and Alicia. Alicia loves Bobby: she wants to marry him and have his child. Bobby loves Alicia but refuses any relationship: he has nightmares about having a child with her. If this makes you uncomfortable, I don’t blame you.

    McCarthy likes making us uncomfortable. Through this relationship he poses the question: What if there were only one person you loved romantically but that love was a violation of God’s laws? There is more than a little echo of Aeneas and Dido here, as Bobby chooses to follow God’s will while Alicia eventually turns to suicide in despair.

    If this story line sounds familiar, it should. William Faulkner’s influence on McCarthy has been noted by critics since his first novel, The Orchard Keeper. But in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, incestuous desire is rejected; here is an act evil enough to establish limits in a world without apparent order.

    But even for Alicia there is evil. In fact, something evil haunts both novels. Repeatedly we are told that the characters hear something coming, or know that something is coming, or fear that something is coming. Alicia names that something the “Archatron,” a Satan-like figure. She tells her therapist that she had “a dream that was not a dream” in which she looked through a peephole and saw two guardians standing at a gate, and beyond the gate a dark presence lurked. Her world may be devoid of a God, but it’s not devoid of a devil. Her and Bobby’s father’s work on the Manhattan Project casts a shadow over the two siblings. The implication seems to be that nuclear destruction of some kind might be approaching: a civilizational suicide to match Alicia’s own drive to self-annihilation.

    Human connections stand out as the most meaningful parts of the novels. In his care for his sister and his love of his friends, Bobby shows the beauty of this life, although that beauty is inseparable from heartbreak.

    In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, McCarthy was asked whether he had figured out the God question. He replied: “It would depend on what day you ask me.” I’ve always found his answer to be evasive. But something like his answer shows up several times in these new novels. Questions like “Do you believe in God?” and “Do you believe in an afterlife?” are posed repeatedly. Alicia and Bobby share Hamlet’s indecisiveness in their responses. Alicia says she doesn’t believe in an afterlife but won’t rule out the possibility. Bobby imagines himself dying as the last pagan, but he buys a Bible and studies prayer near the conclusion of The Passengers. For Bobby, doubts about the afterlife stem from his own fear, akin to Hamlet’s, of committing suicide and his hope that he might see his dead sister again. But Alicia, with her more scientific mindset, seems to accept the possibility of an afterlife. She can’t technically rule it out.

    McCarthy’s works are commonly interpreted as essentially nihilistic. Stories of extreme violence  – where the villains, taking on demonic forms, seemingly escape all judgment – lend themselves to such a reading. But it’s still possible to find hope amid the horror. Elusive hope, but hope nevertheless. In The Road, “good guys” are eventually found and the boy prays to God by speaking to his dead father. This ending is not just hopeful, but explicitly religious. Given the numerous allusions to Christianity throughout The Road  – originally titled The Grail  – the God seems to be the Christian God, albeit in a nontraditional formulation. This religious strain in McCarthy’s work is made more explicit in a play published the same year as The Road titled The Sunset Limited, a dialogue between an atheist and an unorthodox Christian on the existence of God. Then there’s McCarthy’s use of biblical allusions in his titles: Outer Dark and Cities of the Plain. McCarthy’s work is Christ-haunted.

    book covers of The Passenger and Stella Maris

    Consequently, when I read The Passenger and Stella Maris I expected to find conversations about the existence of God, the nature of grace, and the reality of evil – topics McCarthy addressed in previous works, but which deserved a fuller treatment. And I expected the story of these novels to end hopefully – not happy endings but ones with glimmers of transcendent hope, however faint, as with No Country for Old Men and The Road. But in these new novels, McCarthy’s characters end up alone with no apparent hope at all. Alicia’s story ends with her suicide alone in the woods. Bobby’s story ends with him alone in Ibiza. He hopes only to “carry [Alicia’s] beauty into the darkness with him, the last pagan on earth, singing softly upon his palate in an unknown tongue.” This song may be a prayer. It may also be nothing at all.

    Transcendence isn’t entirely absent. Where violence, evil, love, or grace offered such transcendence in McCarthy’s previous works, here it seems that role is left to mathematics. Alicia is driven by a fanatical desire to work out the foundation of reality, some sure rock on which she can stand. And the abstract, limitless purity of mathematics seems like the most likely place to look.

    Cormac McCarthy has long been interested in science, but until now that interest has been expressed largely though his intricate portraits of natural phenomena. The scientific turn in The Passenger and Stella Maris is something new: McCarthy is more materialist here, but no less human. Human connections stand out as the most meaningful parts of the novels. In his care for his sister and his love of his friends, Bobby shows the beauty of this life, although – as his sister and his friends die – that beauty is inseparable from heartbreak.

    The Passenger ends in Ibiza. Since his masterpiece, Blood Meridian, McCarthy has depicted Mexico as a place of escape from the United States. But that escape is never truly fulfilling, whether it is Mexico or Ibiza. Escape never is. As in all of McCarthy’s work, the characters of The Passenger and Stella Maris are always followed by their doubts, fears, and loves. And in the end, no matter how far they run, that is where his characters remain.

    Contributed By AlanNoble Alan Noble

    Alan Noble is associate professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University, cofounder and editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, and an advisor for the AND Campaign.

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