Thursday, February 22, 2024

Book reviews: "The Passenger" and "Stella Maris" by Cormac McCarthy- Guest essay from Lasken's Log

[You may have heard in the news last week that toxic saliva from a gila monster bite killed someone and that it's not the first time. All I can say is, that's not been my experience with Robert the Telepathic Gila Monster (keep reading for more on this eccentric creature) unless you count mental bites, and Robert's are usually instructive. The other day he called me over the desert airwaves to ask if I'd read Cormac McCarthy's final two novels. "Yes," I thought back. "Were they not outstanding?" Robert signalled. "I could have guessed they'd fit your cheery mindset," I responded, then mentioned that I've been discussing the books with my altered-ego D.L., who intended to review them on his blog, Lasken's Log ( Subsequently, Robert and I convinced him to post his review here, as a service to my readers who, if they are not already McCarthy fans, certainly might be. Hope you enjoy! Note: D.L. likes to summarise stories, so if you're going to read the two books, read this review after. Best, Harry]

Book reviews: "The Passenger" and "Stella Maris" by Cormac McCarthy

Guest post by D.L. from Lasken's Log

The next great war won't arrive until everyone who remembers the last one is dead.
Stella Maris, Cormac McCarthy

The two novels, published in 2022, one year before McCarthy died at age 89, were his first in 16 years, since Blood Meridian in 2006. They are companion pieces, one book each for a brother and his younger sister, Bobby and Alicia Western, whose father (a fictional character) worked closely with a real person (Robert Oppenheimer) on the atom bomb in the Manhattan Project.

There is crossover, but The Passenger deals mostly with Bobby, and Stella Maris mostly with Alicia.

The books have in common an uncompromising embrace of darkness as the overriding principal of human life if not the universe. McCarthy's previous work was embraced by many for its dark view of things and the violence of its visions. The force of his last two novels seems to have built up in him for 16 years, coming out, at least for me, unexpectedly intense and pointed, as if McCarthy wanted us to know that the wisdom we seek in youth to counter the darkness appears even more a pipedream in the final, visionary moments.

The narratives differ the way the siblings differ. In The Passenger Bobby's physical self throbs across the pages. As a refugee hunted by CIA types (their identity is never confirmed) he builds habitats out of refuse in wastelands, skinning, cooking and eating carrion, reading physics by the fire at night and thinking about his sister, his father and The Bomb.

Before he was on the run (and after being injured in a Formula 2 race car crash) Bobby worked in deep sea salvage. One day he and his co-workers got a call that led them to a private plane underwater containing 12 drowned passengers. Afterwards, two "Feds," as Bobby's friends call them, interrogate Bobby, telling him there was a 13th passenger on the plane who is missing. The incident is not reported in the papers. Bobby and his crew come to realize that someone made a mistake and they were not supposed to have seen the wreck. The men who saw it begin to die in unexplained ways, and Bobby flees. In the succeeding chapters, McCarthy is a wizard of diversion, writing about the intrigue over the missing passenger only incidentally, as a sub-plot (Spoiler alert: This sub-plot is never concluded or explained). Most of the narrative involves stories of how Bobby left university and a promising career in physics to flower as a race car driver and anti-hero, an extraordinary chunk of physical manhood and genius who refuses to accept an organized, nihilistic state- such as the one that created The Bomb- as his master and model.

In spite of or maybe because of Bobby's gifts, the expressions of darkness in this book are constant. When they're not unsettling they can be almost funny. Try this from one of Bobby's roughneck drinking buddies: "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."

Except for his sister, whom he adored and with whom he was obsessed, Bobby saw women as one more expression of the world's terrifying visions, ready to satisfy his manly need to penetrate but ready as well to skewer his brain with magical cords distracting him from himself. When his sister aims those cords at him, his world shatters.

"Stella Maris" is the name of a mental institution where Alicia has committed herself. The novel consists of Alicia's conversations with her state appointed therapist. I found the force of this novel somewhat dangerous to my peace of mind, like The Passenger but more so. Alicia is unrelentingly brilliant, seducing the reader with engaging theories, for instance that the reason animals don't appear to experience mental illness on anything like the scale of humans is that they don't have language, that language is a "parasite" that infected early humans, dominating their "unconscious" and driving them mad enough to destroy the living world. Or her observation that the young of non-humans do not screech after birth as human babies do because that would draw predators. Her theory is that the loud wailing of human babies is driven by an "uncontrollable rage at something essentially wrong with the newly revealed world."

Alicia is stunningly beautiful, but she has no interest in any man other than her brother, whom she wants to have sex with and marry. Before declaring herself "unbalanced" and committing herself to Stella Maris she had done university work in mathematics and is brilliant in any subject you can name, reading 4-5 books a day and memorizing them (she can do crossword puzzles in her head and recite them back).

Alicia, like Bobby, is fascinated by her father's work on the atom bomb, seeing the creation of this weapon as a final "psychosis" of mankind, "the most important event in history" in the sense that it threatens the end of history.

As noted, I found the one-two punch of the books somewhat dangerous, that is, somewhat convincing. We humans can't reach any moral conclusions by staring into the voids of space or quantum theory. We are limited to the immediate people around us for a sense of "how things are." In answer to that question, I'd say that Alicia and Bobby are right, the atom bomb was the most important and the most psychotic invention in human history. As argued in this blog (see "Kissinger's nuclear war" at the link above), and as McCarthy expected, nuclear weapons probably will be used in an upcoming war. There will be superficial meanings attached to this use, such as "One country is fighting another country," along with deeper meanings, including perhaps that there is a unified goal from an emerging technocracy whose interest is to use nuclear war and whatever other horrors are at hand to subdue and corral current humanity- dismissed as last year's species- into a confused mass that won't be able to resist the up and downgrades of an end-game karma.

(Spoiler alert) Alicia commits suicide- as revealed in the beginning of each book- and Bobby drifts off to Spain, hiding from the "Feds" and mourning his sister for the rest of his life. It's not a happy ending. Should we conclude, as I think McCarthy did, that darkness prevails? I'm going to hold off, just to see if some new, maybe saner language can take hold, so for instance one might turn on the network news and hear the anchor say, "In their continued effort to distract us from the advent of new humans and machines to replace us, manipulators fan the flames of war to create the illusion of human agency."

That might be a bit much to expect, but a more candid acknowledgment in the political sphere of what's looming for us would be a breath of fresh air.

Note to readers: Apologies for the irregular paragraphing above. I tried to rectify it but the local Google Editor, long forgotten by its creators, resisted.

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