2022 has been a year of witnessing, writers with a committed reading audience, return to the publishing scene after an interim. From Hanya Yanagihara, Julie Otuska, NoViolet Bulawayo, Mohsin Hamid, to Orhan Pamuk, the writer-reader bonds have been revived with newer stories, fresher perspectives and yet with the same reassuring love that first brought them together. To this list, we have the return of 2006–Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Cormac McCarthy, with his novel, The Passenger after sixteen years of his last publication. At 89, McCarthy is back not with one novel but two, a sequel that is predicted to be published this year in November.
The convoluted mysteries of the self
The Passenger begins with the scene of a young girl buried in snow on Christmas. This is Alice/Alicia’s last Christmas. Ten years have gone by since then. Her brother, Bobby Western, a salvage diver across the American South, is unable to move on from it. He was in love with his sister who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. But their love was a taboo, a laughing matter he is still reminded of by people around him after ten years of her death. And to that, Western is running away from surveillance by state authorities. There was a plane buried in the sea with passengers and pilots strapped to their seats, floating in the water which Western had gone down with his friends/colleagues to investigate.
A passenger from the plane, however, is missing, and Western is the primary suspect. Set in 1980s American South, McCarthy’s latest novel is a testimony to history, science, religion, war, politics, love, and the convoluted mysteries of the self. It’s a story that accepts the miseries of the world as it comes from one’s very existence and mourns the variety of pursuits humans invent to make life bearable.
In Italics font, the first part of each chapter can appear as a story separated from that of the missing passenger. In 1970s, there is a girl (Alice/Alicia) who ‘wanted to be…dead’ since she was a child. A character named Kid constantly questions her about her unsupervised thoughts, her interest in math, her need to disappear from the world and about her family. She hisses at Kid and the set of people Kid brings into her room creating a ruckus when she seeks solace. Is Kid real, or a figment of her schizophrenic imagination?
To the reader of American literature, Alice/Alicia is reminiscent of Benjy Compson, the intellectually disabled character of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury based in Mississippi. The consistent inconsistency of memory, of the nature of time and reality in the American South, and the sibling relationship echoes Faulkner’s influence in McCarthy’s imagination of a young girl. She believes, “It’s just that sometimes I think I would have found my life pretty funny if I hadnt have to live it.”
Then, McCarthy switches to the present, the 1980s, following Bobby Western as he meets friends, discovers money, backpacks across the country in search for meaning, a comprehension of the world that his love for physics couldn’t answer. Rich in intricate details like the number of minutes he slept, his missing cat, Billy Ray, to the unhappy description of an unjust world; McCarthy’s writing captures the mental state and the nauseous dilemma of Western’s life after the passing of his father and sister. As he journeys back and forth, he meets friends who tell him stories of war, of embodied freedom, of awaiting salvation, of regretting nothing and of the ‘problem’ of the country he is a citizen of. In fact, the book is based on the foundation of conversations and dialogues. With no quotations, pages run on with dialogues revealing the vicissitudes of humanity as the system falters, science kills, and life becomes amorphous.
An American tragedy
While it has the making of an apocalyptic thriller, The Passenger veers off to disengage structures of truth from the experiential grief of humanity. Very soon, the plot of the missing passenger from the plane matters less to McCarthy and the story. Rather, like Western, the plots keep diverging, moving here and there, finding itself flowing through the murky terrains of the American south where lives appear and vanish in the blink of an eye. The missing passenger begins to acquire a broader metaphorical meaning to the story but McCarthy’s skilled handling of plot and character keeps the reader guessing – Who is the passenger? Why is Western being stalked by the state agencies? What is he really running away from? What happened to his sister?
McCarthy’s prose is engaging. It pulls the reader in, guessing, and halfway through it the reader gasps at the pages yet being swayed by the story. Oiler’s (a friend of Western) experience of the war in Vietnam disturbs the core at which human-nonhuman hierarchy exists. The war-time chase and the run for life brings Heller’s Yossarian from Catch-22 to mind – caught again in a paradox, but this time, between those with courts of justice and those without. And then the reader finds themselves caught in a profound discussion of S-Matrix theory and renowned thinkers embroiled in quantum physics in the run for the Nobel Prize. If war and science were not enough to uncover the unrelenting problems of the human condition, McCarthy picks at the final straw: state politics. The assassination of JFK becomes the symbolic representation of the larger themes of morality, corruption, violence, threat and solitude that Western’s character has been toiling with over the 383 pages of the novel.
Stella Maris is the upcoming sequel to The Passenger. Set ten years before in the 1970s, the sequel explores Alicia Western’s perception of life as a doctoral student in mathematics at the University of Chicago. Perhaps, it will deliver answers that still remain hidden and untold in her brother, Bobby Western’s story. Certainly, McCarthy’s comeback has been monumental. Like his previous works, it retains the haunting apocalyptic aura, references to American folklore, the author’s problems with the unquestioned reliance on science and the larger questions of human morality. It captures American tragedy and the daunting global apocalypse that awaits or is already unfolding in the the world.
The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy, Picador.