Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR
Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR
In terms of scope, works of literature exist on a spectrum that goes from small narratives packed into a microcosm that want to explore a single element of human nature all the way to stories that seem obsessed with somehow encapsulating the totality of the human experience and decoding the meaning of life.
Cormac McCarthy's The Passenger and Stella Maris -- the author's first two books in more than a decade — belong to the latter group, both as standalone novels and when taken together as deeply intertwined works of fiction that take place in the same universe and with the same characters.
The Passenger, set mostly in Louisiana in the early 1980s, tells the story of siblings Bobby and Alicia Western (see what the author of Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain did there?). Bobby, who used to be a Formula 2 racecar driver, works as a salvage diver. He's a moody, hard-drinking man who's haunted by the loss of his beloved sister, who committed suicide a decade earlier, and by the ghost of his father, a renowned physicist who helped J. Robert Oppenheimer develop the atom bomb. Bobby works a dive at an offshore plane crash, but it's not a regular job.
The crash never makes the news, important parts of the plane are missing, and one of the passengers isn't inside the plane with the rest of the bodies. After the dive, strange men start following Bobby around and ask him questions. Also, someone repeatedly breaks into his home, forcing him to move and consider abandoning Louisiana altogether. While dealing with the increasing weirdness of the mysterious crash, the strange men shadowing him, and his growing paranoia, Bobby rereads the letters Alicia left behind. Also, readers get vignettes of Alicia dealing with the "cohorts," a group of imagined beings that harassed her.
The Passenger is part familial trauma story — including incest — and part slow-burning thriller. However, it's also much more than that. McCarthy writes about everything here, from buried gold and incredibly detailed dives to mathematics and the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:
"Those who survived would often remember this horrors with a certain aesthetic to them. In that mycoidal phantom blooming in the dawn like an evil lotus and in the melting of solids not heretofore known to do so stood a truth that would silence poetry a thousand years. Like an immense bladder, they would say. Like some sea thing. Wobbling slightly on the near horizon. Then the unspeakable noise. They saw birds in the dawn sky ignite and explode soundlessly and fall in long arcs earthward like burning party favors."
Elegant writing like this is present once in a while, and it's balanced by straightforward prose about everything and nothing: people driving, talking, drinking coffee or beer, meditations on death, observations about nature, staring out the window, or feeding the cat. The back and forth — this is a novel about nothing important/this is a novel about everything that matters — is often surprising, perhaps a bit disjointed and jarring, but it's also unequivocally McCarthy-ish, and it works. The novelist is concerned with the big questions now more than even, and that obsession is present in almost every page.
And then there's Stella Maris.
Consisting purely of dialogue — devoid of the punctuation and dialogue tags commonly used for it, as McCarthy has always done — Stella Maris records Alicia's long, bizarre conversations with a male psychiatrist at the titular mental institution in 1972. While there, Alicia is diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, but she is brilliant — perhaps a genius — and the conversations go from discussing the Thalidomide Kid, an imagined balding dwarf with flippers for hands who constantly visited Alicia, to the difference between reality and human consciousness. Stranger and smarter than The Passenger, Stella Maris is also somehow darker and packed with lines like "The world has created no living thing that it does not intend to destroy" and "I think your experience of the world is largely a shoring up against the unpleasant truth that the world doesnt know you're here."
The Passenger flirts with not being a traditional novel and succeeds. Stella Maris doesn't care about not being a novel, and it shines because of it. The former is dark and mysterious like a night out on the bayou. The latter — a spiritual sister presented as a coda to be published a month later — is wild, profoundly sinister, and more a philosophical exploration and celebration of math-mysticism and the possibilities — and perhaps unknowability? — of quantum mechanics than a novel. Taken together, these two novels are a floating signifier that refuses to be pinned down. They are also great additions to McCarthy's already outstanding oeuvre and proof that the mind of one of our greatest living writers is as sharp as it has ever been.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.