Cormac McCarthy is the old man who wrote No Country for Old Men. He also wrote some other stuff. His Blood Meridian remains the best written book that I have ever read, and in general I don’t think there is any writer that I have respected more than McCarthy.
This book I’m reviewing, as well as the accompanying novella Stella Maris (that I’ve yet to read), may be the last books that McCarthy will be able to finish; the guy is eighty-nine years old. And throughout this text I got the sense that this was an extremely lucid man, who knows that he’s not long for this world, musing about the fringes of human experience and of existence in general.
The book starts with the protagonist, who at that point is working as a salvage diver, becoming embroiled in a mystery, but that’s only an excuse to push the guy further towards the edge. We are presented with dialogues about seemingly disparate stuff such as the Vietnam war, the conspiracy that killed the Kennedys, quantum mechanics, schizophrenic hallucinations, the depths of bodies of water, life on an offshore platform, etc.; the extremes where darkness reigns, where our ability as human beings to come to terms with anything becomes muddy. And I’m guessing that McCarthy chose to delve into these topics because he’s about to face the greatest darkness himself. I don’t know if I’d prefer to be so lucid when/if I grow that old.
The story follows a man for whom life stopped ten years ago, when his little sister, the love of his life, killed herself. We find this out in the first few pages, if I recall correctly. The young woman, clichédly named Alicia, was a haunting beauty and the kind of anomaly that makes you feel a hole in the world when she’s gone, whether or not you were involved in an incestual relationship with her: besides being a striking beauty (and beauty disappearing from the world is always a tragedy), she was a math genius who, for example, was consulted by experts at thirteen because she could determine which violin designs would sound best. Unfortunately, at puberty she started receiving visits from penny-dreadful characters who insisted on bothering her. One of them, the most insistent one, had flippers for hands. The scenes that feature them were the most un-McCarthy stuff that I’ve ever read of his, who’s usually centered on matter-of-fact matters. Suffering such detachment from reality, knowing herself so different from everyone else, this Alicia girl eventually failed to put her tremendous talents to use. She ended up in a sanitarium, from where she decided to walk off to a watery death.
[The notion that this book featured the adventures of a peculiar, sort-of-schizophrenic woman who received the visits of bizarre entities that may or not be real (we are told that the psychiatric tests that usually pinpoint schizophrenia failed on her) was what attracted me to read this book when I have been in a string of DNF-ed novels; I’m currently writing a novel that features one such character.]
McCarthy did a great job cementing this Alicia as a mythical presence in the past of the narrative. You want more glimpses of her, and you mourn the loss of her peculiarities. Like the protagonist, you wish to retain her exact words and come to figure out how her mind worked. I guess that Stella Maris, which is focused on Alicia’s experiences in the sanitarium, will prolong that appeal. This character in general, and the protagonist’s mourning of her, made me wonder if McCarthy based the grief on a real person.
Anyway, our protagonist failed to protect his little sister, who had frequently stated that she wanted to disappear, that she would have preferred to never have existed, and that she was doomed to kill herself. After she drowned, the protagonist thinks and/or says in a variety of ways that life no longer has any meaning now that everything that he had loved in it is gone, and yet back then he found every excuse to go gallivanting around the globe instead of being tangled in the sheets with this hot little sister of his. Although the protagonist himself wonders why the hell he wasn’t there for her, it feels more like a plot hole to me.
I liked the protagonist, and in plenty of ways I understand him; he can’t figure out why he even bothers to keep going, yet he’s supposed to care about his present circumstances and the possible consequences to come, nevermind the world around him. You shouldn’t go into this novel expecting a compelling plot or even resolutions, because in general it’s a “why oh why does anything have to be.”
The most memorable secondary character of the many that come and go was a certain John Sheddan, an eloquent, debauched acquaintance of the protagonist that shows up as if we are supposed to know him. He was probably a self-insert for the author to speak directly to the protagonist as well as to us, someone whose talks we found interesting and we’d miss once he disappeared from the world.
Apart from the characters, how about the prose? Does it reach the heights of Blood Meridian? There are long stretches of extraordinary, carefully crafted prose, and that alone is worth the price of entry, but some scenes are sparse in that regard.
McCarthy refuses to use an apostrophe for “can’t,” “don’t” and the likes. I’m fine with that, and I wouldn’t mind if its use in such contractions disappeared officially. But I regard his refusal to use quotes for dialogue as a mistake; often you can’t tell not only who’s speaking, but even if what was written was supposed to have come out of someone’s mouth. I’m all for confusing the reader when the POV character is supposed to be confused, but I think that you shouldn’t confuse your readers unnecessarily.
EDIT: now that I’ve read the companion book Stella Maris (link goes to my review of it), I have realized that during the period when Alicia committed herself to a sanitarium and afterwards killed herself, the protagonist of this novel was in a coma after a car crash. I have no idea how I missed it in this narrative. So the protagonist, who had been eluding his sister’s amorous attentions for years because he hadn’t come to terms with his own love towards her, got into a car while her sister presumably attended the race, and after he woke up from a crash-induced coma, he found out that his sister had killed herself because she believed him to be brain dead. Even worse: Alicia suggests in Stella Maris that if her brother ever died, she would die as soon as possible to find him in the dark.
During the events depicted in The Passenger, its protagonist wanders through his life aimlessly, unable to care about the future or any consequences, because nothing matters anymore after his sister died. However, having read the companion book, I don’t know how he stopped himself from walking into traffic the moment he realized what had happened to her due to his own decisions.
Here are the quotes that I highlighted on my Kindle:
Beauty makes promises that beauty cant keep.
The truth is that everyone is under arrest. Or soon will be. They dont have to restrict your movements. They just have to know where you are.
A calamity can be erased by no amount of good. It can only be erased by a worse calamity.
I know that to be female is an older thing even than to be human. I want to be as old as I can be.
People will go to strange lengths to avoid the suffering they have coming.
You think that when there’s somethin that’s got you snakebit you can just walk off and forget it. The truth is it aint even following you. It’s waitin for you. It always will be.
We might have very different notions about the nature of the oncoming night. But as darkness descends does it matter?
The world will take your life. But above all and lastly the world does not know that you are here. You think that you understand this. But you dont. Not in your heart you dont. If you did you would be terrified.
You’re a pack of mudheaded bigots who loathe excellence on principle and though one might cordially wish you all in hell still you wont go.
Real trouble doesnt begin in a society until boredom has become its most general feature. Boredom will drive even quietminded people down paths they’d never imagined.
The horrors of the past lose their edge, and in the doing they blind us to a world careening toward a darkness beyond the bitterest speculation. It’s sure to be interesting. When the onset of universal night is finally acknowledged as irreversible even the coldest cynic will be astonished at the celerity with which every rule and stricture shoring up this creaking edifice is abandoned and every aberrancy embraced. It should be quite a spectacle. However brief.
You have to believe that there is good in the world. I’m goin to say that you have to believe that the work of your hands will bring it into your life. You may be wrong, but if you dont believe that then you will not have a life.
In the spring of the year birds began to arrive on the beach from across the gulf. Weary passerines. Vireos. Kingbirds and grosbeaks. Too exhausted to move. You could pick them up out of the sand and hold them trembling in your palm. Their small hearts beating and their eyes shuttering. He walked the beach with his flashlight the whole of the night to fend away predators and toward the dawn he slept with them in the sand. That none disturb these passengers.
If imaginary beings die an imaginary death they will be dead nonetheless. You think that you can create a history of what has been. Present artifacts. A clutch of letters. A sachet in a dressingtable drawer. But that’s not what’s at the heart of the tale. The problem is that what drives the tale will not survive the tale. As the room dims and the sound of voices fades you understand that the world and all in it will soon cease to be. You believe that it will begin again. You point to other lives. But their world was never yours.
The abyss of the past into which the world is falling. Everything vanishing as if it had never been. We would hardly wish to know ourselves again as we once were and yet we mourn the days.
I don’t know what to tell you, he wrote. Much has changed and yet everything is the same. I am the same. I always will be. I’m writing because there are things that I think you would like to know. I am writing because there are things I dont want to forget. Everything is gone from my life except you. I dont even know what that means.
I’m not sure what the adaptive advantage could be to share an innate and collective misery.
I suppose in the end what we have to offer is only what we’ve lost.
The world’s truth constitutes a vision so terrifying as to beggar the prophecies of the bleakest seer who ever walked it. Once you accept that then the idea that all of this will one day be ground to powder and blown into the void becomes not a prophecy but a promise. So allow me in turn to ask you this question: When we and all our works are gone together with every memory of them and every machine in which such memory could be encoded and stored and the earth is not even a cinder, for whom then will this be a tragedy?
To prepare for any struggle is largely a work of unburdening oneself. If you carry your past into battle you are riding to your death. Austerity lifts the heart and focuses the vision. Travel light. A few ideas are enough. Every remedy for loneliness only postpones it. And that day is coming in which there will be no remedy at all.
He knew that on the day of his death he would see her face and he could hope to carry that beauty into the darkness with him, the last pagan on earth, singing softly upon his pallet in an unknown tongue.