Review: Stella Maris, by Cormac McCarthy

Four and a half stars.

This book is the companion piece to McCarthy’s latest (and likely last) novel The Passenger (link goes to the review I wrote of it). Stella Maris consists entirely of fictional transcripts of therapy sessions set somewhere in Wisconsin during the early seventies. No narrative prose of any kind.

According to the ratings, most people, including me, seem to have found this book more compelling than The Passenger, and it’s mainly due to the patient involved: Alicia, the fabled sister of the other book’s protagonist; in that narrative, his sister has been dead for about ten years. Alicia is extremely intelligent, a synesthete, a math genius. Since puberty, she has been receiving the visits of strange people that may or may not exist. She has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and autism by different psychiatrists. She’s hopelessly in love with her brother, who during the period recorded in this book is considered brain dead as he lies in a coma after a car crash. Alicia also wishes she had never been born and is currently planning to kill herself, a fact that her therapist suspects but didn’t manage to prevent.

In my review of The Passenger, I blasted Alicia’s brother, named Bobby, for gallivanting around the world instead of being there for her unique, hopelessly vulnerable sister who loved him. I have no clue how I missed in that other book that he had ended up in a coma; if Alicia hadn’t considered him brain dead, as the Italian doctors who tended to him assured her, she wouldn’t have returned to the States and committed herself to a sanitarium, from which she wandered into the cold of the woods to die. However, Bobby did decide to spend his inheritance on a Formula One car, which he eventually crashed. So Alicia’s fate is still mostly on you, buddy.

Alicia is one of those people who are born too different, too strange, and intelligent enough to know it. She never belonged anywhere. She worked tirelessly to make it as a mathematician, but although she managed to attend college as a teen, she never presented her thesis: her probing of the fringes of mathematics had led her to question the discipline itself. Her mind forced her to contemplate the limits of reality on a daily basis, and she was tormented by the lack of answers.

Despite her clichéd name and a couple of points she made that I found dubious (I won’t specify, because I don’t want people to annoy me about them), I found Alicia enthralling. She was the first fictional character in a long time with whom I would love to talk on a regular basis, and whose death hurts for real. There’s a part in which she describes that after returning from Italy she travelled to Lake Tahoe with the intention of rowing away from the shore, attaching a weight to herself and sinking to the depths. Her mind-simulation of how that would play out made me physically ill not only because of the extreme detail, but because I wanted her to keep living.

I don’t know if I would recommend such a book to anyone; I suspect that McCarthy wrote these therapy sessions as character work to understand such a complex character, but that he eventually realized he had achieved something important, so he polished it for publication. In any case, if you are the right person for this book, its blurb alone should convince you to read it.

Here are the quotes I highlighted:

The world has created no living thing that it does not intend to destroy.

Nobody comes with names. You give them names so that you can find them in the dark.

That there is little joy in the world is not just a view of things. Every benevolence is suspect. You finally figure out that the world does not have you in mind. It never did.

We’re here on a need-to-know basis. There is no machinery in evolution for informing us of the existence of phenomena that do not affect our survival. What is here that we dont know about we dont know about.

If a psychosis was just some synapses misfiring why wouldnt you simply get static? But you dont. You get a carefully crafted and fairly articulate world never seen before. Who’s doing this? Who is it who is running around hooking up the dangling wires in new and unusual ways. Why is he doing it? What is the algorithm he follows? Why do we suspect there is one?

Sites that have been host to extraordinary suffering will eventually be either burned to the ground or turned into temples.

The simplest undertaking is predicated upon a future that has no warrant.

People are interested in other people. But your unconscious is not. Or only as they might directly affect you. It’s been hired to do a very specific job. It never sleeps. It’s more faithful than God.

If you have a patient with a condition that’s not understood why not ascribe it to a disorder that is also not understood? Autism occurs in males more than it does in females. So does higher order mathematical intuition. We think: What is this about? Dont know. What is at the heart of it? Dont know. All I can tell you is that I like numbers. I like their shapes and their colors and their smells and the way they taste. And I dont like to take people’s word for things.

There’s data in the world available only to those who have reached a certain level of wretchedness. You dont know what’s down there if you havent been down there.

There seems to be a ceiling to well-being. My guess is that you can only be so happy. While there seems to be no floor to sorrow. Each deeper misery being a state heretofore unimagined. Each suggestive of worse to come.

Animals might whimper if they’re hungry or cold. But they dont start screaming. It’s a bad idea. The more noise you make the more likely you are to be eaten. If you’ve no way to escape you keep silent. If birds couldnt fly they wouldnt sing. When you’re defenseless you keep your opinions to yourself.

The rage of children seemed inexplicable other than as a breach of some deep and innate covenant having to do with how the world should be and wasnt.

Rage is only for what you believe can be fixed. All the rest is grief.

[The unconscious has] been on its own for a long time. Of course it has no access to the world except through your own sensorium. Otherwise it would just labor in the dark. Like your liver. For historical reasons it’s loath to speak to you. It prefers drama, metaphor, pictures. But it understands you very well. And it has no other cause save yours.

If the world itself is a horror then there is nothing to fix and the only thing you could be protected from would be the contemplation of it.

The void has no stake in the world’s continuing existence. It’s home as well to countless millions of meteorites. Some of them enormous. Trundling across the blackness at forty miles a second. I think if there were anything to care it would have cared by now.

Leonardo cant be explained. Or Newton, or Shakespeare. Or endless others. Well. Probably not endless. But at least we know their names. But unless you’re willing to concede that God invented the violin there is a figure who will never be known. A small man who went with his son into the stunted forests of the little iceage of fifteenth century Italy and sawed and split the maple trees and put the flitches to dry for seven years and then stood in the slant light of his shop one morning and said a brief prayer of thanks to his creator and then–knowing this perfect thing–took up his tools and turned to its construction. Saying now we begin.

The dream wakes us to tell us to remember. Maybe there’s nothing to be done. Maybe the question is whether the terror is a warning about the world or about ourselves. The night world from which you are brought upright in your bed gasping and sweating. Are you waking from something you have seen or from something that you are?

What seems inconsequential to us by reason of usage is in fact the founding notion of civilization. Language, art, mathematics, everything. Ultimately the world itself and all in it.

[My brother and I,] We were like the last on earth. We could choose to join the beliefs and practices of the millions of dead beneath our feet or we could begin again. Did he really have to think about it? Why should I have no one? Why should he? I told him that I’d no way even to know if there was justice in my heart if I had no one to love and love me. You cannot credit yourself with a truth that has no resonance. Where is the reflection of your worth? And who will speak for you when you are dead?

Those who choose a love that can never be fulfilled will be hounded by a rage that can never be extinguished.

What is the inner life of an eidolon? Do his thoughts and his questions originate with him? Do mine with me? Is he my creature? Am I his? I saw how he made do with his paddles and that he was ashamed for me to see. His turn of speech, his endless pacing. Was that my work? I’ve no such talent. I cant answer your questions. The tradition of trolls or demons standing sentinel against inquiry must be as old as language. Still, maybe a friend must be someone you can touch. I dont know. I no longer have an opinion about reality. I used to. Now I dont. The first rule of the world is that everything vanishes forever. To the extent that you refuse to accept that then you are living in a fantasy.

Sometimes in the winter in the dark I’d wake and everything that smacked of dread would have lifted up and stolen away in the night and I would just be lying there with the snow blowing against the glass. I’d think that maybe I should turn on the lamp but then I’d just lie there and listen to the quiet. The wind in the quiet. There are times now when I see those patients in their soiled nightshirts lying on gurneys in the hallway with their faces to the wall that I ask myself what humanity means. I would ask does it include me.

The arrival of language was like the invasion of a parasitic system. Co-opting those areas of the brain that were the least dedicated. The most susceptible to appropriation.

The unconscious system of guidance is millions of years old, speech less than a hundred thousand. The brain had no idea any of this was coming. The unconscious must have had to do all sorts of scrambling around to accommodate a system that proved perfectly relentless. Not only it is comparable to a parasitic invasion, it’s not comparable to anything else.

There were times I’d see [my brother] looking at me and I would leave the room crying. I knew that I’d never be loved like that again. I just thought that we would always be together. I know you think I should have seen that as more aberrant than I did, but my life is not like yours. My hour. My day. I used to dream about our first time together. I do yet. I wanted to be revered. I wanted to be entered like a cathedral.

It’s certainly possible that the imaginary is best. Like a painting of some idyllic landscape. The place you would most like to be. That you never will.

One thought on “Review: Stella Maris, by Cormac McCarthy

  1. Pingback: Review: The Passenger, by Cormac McCarthy – The Domains of the Emperor Owl

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